Hood's novel inspires nostalgia with its story of the lives of two women in different generations, each mirroring what society dictates as appropriate behavior. Claire is a housewife in Virginia circa 1960, married to the indifferent, often dismissive Peter and mother to a clinging young daughter who throws frequent tantrums. Living the suburban ideal, Claire is experiencing stirrings of discontent, conscious that her life—regardless of its outward perfection—has left her unfulfilled, wife and mother but a hollow and lonely woman. As John F Kennedy is about to be inaugurated in Washington, Claire finds herself in thrall to his beautiful, sophisticated wife.
When a neighborhood boy is kidnapped in broad daylight, Claire is overwhelmed by a sudden awareness of the fleeting nature of happiness, of transformation wrought of tragedy. Not particularly naive, like other women of her generation, Claire has been lulled by the comforts of routine, the afternoon barbeques and cocktail parties, the gossip of friends obscuring dangers that lurk beneath complacency. Suddenly Peter's casual criticisms and rude manners chafe on Claire, grating against her newly awakened consciousness that perhaps she has chosen a life partner unwisely. Destined to miss the coverage of the Washington celebration for a road trip to participate in her mother-in-law's eightieth birthday party, the long drive gives Claire ample time to consider the choices she has made since the kidnapping incident, choices that may have irreparably harmed her marriage.
Like turning the pages of a photograph album yellowed with age and use, Hood reaches farther back, to northern California in 1919. There Vivien, a single woman living in a small cottage, writes obituaries for the bereaved, descriptions of loved ones for publication in the local newspaper. Though her work began quite by accident, Vivien's ability to empathize with the grief of others has allowed her to define the deceased through the stories told by their loved ones, stories that transcend facts to capture the essence of a person's life. Indeed, Vivien has been in mourning herself, since the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Vivien was living with her married lover, David, but lost him that terrifying day, without any idea of his fate. Still waiting, she religiously scours newspaper articles in search of names or information, hopeful that one day she will find a clue about David's whereabouts, for she cannot believe he is dead. Surrounded by the bowls of lavender that perfume the rooms of her cottage or pouring the endless cups of tea that sooth the bereaved, Vivien patiently waits, her life in stasis, the heady memories of moments with David sharing her imagination with the novels of Willa Cather and Henry James.
Each woman, a product of her generation, is exquisitely drawn. Claire, on the cusp of rebellion, lives with the guilt of an impulsive moment. Her relationship with Peter spirals into crisis, brimming with emotional turmoil that threatens to spill over on the trip to his mother's home. Vivien, on the other hand, while constrained by the Victorian sensibilities of her era, is unwilling to relinquish the comfort of her memories and engage with the outside world. Alternating their personal journeys, Hood captures the essence of each generation and each woman's challenges. With a profound sense of irony, Hood gracefully folds one world into another, one woman's sorrows into the others, leading to a moment of unexpected intimacy, an invaluable lesson in facing the future no matter what lies ahead.