Combining the love and longing of two women, Hood has created a truly different and complex novel, filling her characters with depth and passion. In The Obituary Writer, there is little plot, but what is left is the true message as Hood explores the silences between people. The recurring themes of grief, unhappiness and romantic loss take on special meaning as Hood cleverly switches time periods from President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration day in 1961 to 1919 and the waning days of the deadly influenza epidemic.
In Virginia, Claire is obsessed with the new President, and like her neighbors, she wonders at the color of Jackie Kennedy’s Inauguration Day outfit. Even as the first humid days hang in the Virginia air “like a thick gauze,” Claire’s world starts to shift. Her decision to have an affair coincides with a boy
being kidnapped practically right in front of her eyes. This uneasy fracture of Claire’s existence as the suburban wife symbolizes the beginnings of the rupture in her marriage to handsome husband Peter.
Gravitating between feeling satisfaction and the dull predictability of her days, Claire’s pitch-perfect existence is shattered when she meets Miles Sullivan. Black Irish with thick dark hair, "his breath boozy and sweet," Miles instills a desire in Clare she has never felt before.
As a woman in 1961, who does not love her husband but has nowhere to go, Claire has little choice but to hope Peter will forgive her and let her stay. Facing an unknowable future and new dislike for Peter, Claire’s affair with Miles makes her feel reckless and alive.
Claire’s spends her days haunted by her memories and guilt as does
Vivien , who in 1919, has found solace with her friend Lotte at Lotte's
husband's vineyard in Napa Valley. In an attempt to build a new life for herself
and to create a new family after the loss of the man she loved in the San
Francisco earthquake thirteen years earlier, Vivien discovers that she has a talent for obituary writing.
Vivien comes to think of herself in a new way as she consoles individuals who come to her small office, answering her request to tell her about their loved one.
Hood’s uncanny grasp of both Clare and Vivien’s inner-thoughts takes on special resonance in this exploration of two women from different times who share a common predicament: a disconcerting dislocation from their external existence. For years,
Vivien has been holding her own grief at bay and going though the motions of living. Even writing obituaries with a poem attached does little to assuage the guilt and grief and her memories of that morning of April 18th, 1906, when Caruso’s voice rang in her ears and, for the final time, David kissed her goodbye.
Hood’s chapters weave in and out of each other in such a well-crafted manner that the reader can almost sense fulfillment before the final chapters. Claire and
Vivien’s lives parallel in many ways. These are dissatisfied women who question their lot as they try to pull away from what they think is real. Claire admits she will never be the wife Peter wants her to be
or the daughter-in-law she should be, and she refuses to apologize for who she fears she might be becoming. And, after all this time,
Vivien is buoyed along by the possibility that a blue-eyed amnesiac man staying in a Denver hotel might in fact be David.
Both restless hearts yearn for an excess of joy. Vivien speaks the language of grief and learns to understand that grief is not neat and orderly and does not follow any rules. Claire’s mind races with strange fragments she thought she had forgotten. In the end, there’s a sense of unity and of hope, and of time passing as grief changes and the women undergo the act of finding new perspectives, finally unhampered by the sadness of their pasts.