Sunday, April 7, 2013

"The Obituary Writer," by Ann Hood

I still remember taking Ann Hood’s first novel, “Somewhere off the Coast of Maine” (1987) one year to my parents’ summer cottage in Michigan where I used to visit every summer over a period of many years. It is a lovely novel, and was perfect for my carefully selected stack of summer cottage books. Then I lost track of Hood's work for a while. When I read her 2007 novel, “The Knitting Circle,” I had mixed feelings. I knew that she had suffered the terrible personal tragedy of the death of her four year old daughter, Grace, in 2002, and that she couldn’t write or even read for some time afterward; I couldn't imagine how utterly devastating that must have been. She says that knitting saved her life. So this novel about knitting and friendship and support was very personally meaningful to her, and therapeutic as well. Unfortunately, the novel was not well written. Recently I picked up and read her new novel, “The Obituary Writer” (W. W. Norton, 2013). It has an intriguing plot, and utilizes that somewhat shopworn device of writing about the stories of two characters separated by several decades (from the early 20th century to the 1960s), who gradually turn out to have a connection. The problem is that the connection is not that interesting. The first story, that of Vivien, whose dearly beloved married lover, David, disappeared during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, is the more intriguing one; the second story, that of Claire in the 1960s, is less so. The most interesting thing about Claire’s story is the way it illuminates how many women at that time were trapped in traditional marriages in which the husband made all the decisions; further, women were treated by many as second class citizens. There is nothing new about these insights, but Hood portrays the situation vividly. For example, when Claire is in the hospital, the doctors keep talking with her husband about her health, rather than talking with her directly. But aside from this aspect, I was disappointed with Claire’s part of the story, and ultimately with the novel itself.

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