Obituary Writer (Hood)

The Obituary Writer
Ann Hood, 2013
W.W. Norton & Co.
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780393081428

A sophisticated and suspenseful novel about the poignant lives of two women living in different eras.

On the day John F. Kennedy is inaugurated, Claire, an uncompromising young wife and mother obsessed with the glamour of Jackie O, struggles over the decision of whether to stay in a loveless marriage or follow the man she loves and whose baby she may be carrying.

Decades earlier, in 1919, Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer, is searching for her lover who disappeared in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. By telling the stories of the dead, Vivien not only helps others cope with their grief but also begins to understand the devastation of her own terrible loss. The surprising connection between Claire and Vivien will change the life of one of them in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

Part literary mystery and part love story, The Obituary Writer examines expectations of marriage and love, the roles of wives and mothers, and the emotions of grief, regret, and hope. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—West Warwick, Rhode Island, USA
Education—B.A., University of Rhode Island; graduate studies, New York University
Awards—Pushcart Prize (twice); Best American Spiritual Writing Award; Paul Bowles
   Prize for Short Fiction
Currently—lives in Providence, Rhode Island

Ann Hood is an American novelist and short story writer; she has also written nonfiction. The author of thirteen books, her essays and short stories have appeared in many journals and magazines, including the Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House. Hood is a regular contributor to the New York Times "Home Economics" column.

Hood is the winner of a number of awards: Paul Bowles Prize for Short Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and a Best American Spiritual Writing Award. She is a faculty member in the MFA in Creative Writing program at The New School in New York City. She lives in Providence with her husband and their children.

Early Years
Hood was born in West Warwick, Rhode Island and earned her BA in English from the University of Rhode Island. After college she worked for the now-defunct airlines TWA as a flight attendant, living in Boston and Saint Louis and later moving to New York City. She attended graduate school at New York University, studying American Literature.

Hood began writing her first novel Somewhere Off The Coast Of Maine in 1983 while working as a flight attendant—and while attending graduate school—writing whenever she could during train rides to JFK airport or in the galleys of the airplane while passengers slept. During a furlough from the airline, she worked at the Spring Street Bookstore in Soho and Tony Roma's while writing Somewhere Off The Coast Of Maine.

Like much of her work, the novel draws upon her own life. Hood says the book began as a series of short stories about three women who went to college together in the 1960s. A year earlier, her older brother, Skip, died in a freak accident and Hood was struggling with how to cope with the loss. At a writer’s conference, Hood was convinced by the writer Nicholas Delbanco that she was really writing a novel, and from there she began to connect the stories. The book was published in 1987.

Hood’s flight attendant career ended in 1986 when TWA went on strike and the flight attendants found themselves soon “replaced.” With more time to devote to writing, her stories and essays began to appear in Mademoiselle, Redbook, Story, Self, Glamour, New Woman, among others.

Personal life
Hood lives with her husband, businessman Lorne Adrain, her teenage son Sam and her daughter Annabelle in Providence, Rhode Island.

On April 18, 2002, Hood's five-year-old daughter, Grace, died from a virulent form of strep. For two years Hood found herself unable to write or even read. She took solace in learning to knit and in knitting groups. She gradually made her way back to her craft, writing short essays about Grace and grief.

To make sense of her own grief, in fall of 2004 Hood began to write her novel The Knitting Circle, about a woman whose five-year-old daughter dies from meningitis. The woman joins a knitting group of others also struggling to heal from loss. Hood’s best-selling memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief chronicles her own struggle after her daughter’s sudden death. That memoir was named one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly and was a New York Times Editor's Choice.

The summer after Grace died, Hood and Adrain decided to adopt a child and in 2005 traveled to China, where they adopted Annabelle. Hood’s experience adopting in China became the inspiration for her 2010 novel The Red Thread, which follows a woman struggling with the accidental death of her young daughter. The woman, Maya Lange, begins an adoption agency for Chinese babies.

Hood’s short story "Total Cave Darkness," about an alcoholic woman who runs away with a Protestant minister nine years younger than she is, appeared in the Paris Review in 2000. It is also the opening story in her collection of stories An Ornithologist's Guide To Life. The title story of that collection appeared in Glimmer Train in 2004 and revolves around a young girl who slowly discovers her mother is having an affair with their neighbor. Her stories have also appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, Good Housekeeping, Story, Five Points, and others.

In addition to Somewhere Off The Coast of Maine, The Knitting Circle, and The Red Thread, Hood has written seven other novels: The Obituary Writer (2013) Waiting To Vanish (1988), Three-Legged Horse (1989), Something Blue (1991), Places To Stay The Night (1993), The Properties of Water (Doubleday), and Ruby (1998).

Hood, in addition to her memoir, has written an addition work of nonfiction: Do Not Go Gentle: My Search For Miracles in a Cynical Time (1999) follows Hood’s travels to Chimayo, New Mexico in search of a miracle cure for her father’s lung cancer. The dirt at El Santuario de Chimayo, a Roman Catholic church, is believed to have healing properties and thousands flock to the site each year. Her father’s tumor did disappear, but he later died from complications from chemotherapy. Hood initially wrote about this experience in an essay for Doubletake magazine. That essay went on to win a Pushcart Prize. Hood’s editor at Picador urged her to turn it into a book.  (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Pushcart Prize winner Hood (Red Thread) artfully blends two stories that converge in an emotional, poignant ending. Vivien Lowe is an obituary writer in San Francisco obsessed with finding her lover, lost in the 1906 earthquake.... Meanwhile, decades into the future, privileged housewife Claire is bored with her marriage to Peter.... Claire attends the 80th birthday party of her formidable mother-in-law, Birdie. Birdie's illness at the party unites the lives of Vivien and Claire, and their astonishing connection is revealed. Verdict: A well-constructed story.... —Donna Bettencourt, Mesa County Libs., Grand Junction, CO
Library Journal

Connections between an unhappy wife in the Kennedy era and an independent obituarist in early-20th-century California are artfully if predictably spliced in the latest from Hood (The Red Thread, 2010, etc.).... As President John F. Kennedy is inaugurated, [Claire] is both preoccupied with the color of Jackie's outfit and skeptical about her marriage.... In a parallel narrative set on the West Coast in 1919, we meet Vivien Lowe, who, as an obituary writer, has learned to "speak the language of grief" and is in love with a ghost....  A crisis involving Peter's 80-year-old mother, Birdy, leads to the settlement of all the women's fates. Hood's fluent storytelling and empathy will ensure popularity, but her heroines' destinies are devoid of surprises.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The Obituary Writer takes place in two different eras. Describe some of the period details in the novel that help bring these two different eras to life. How has the world changed between 1919 and 1961, and how has it stayed the same? In what ways are Claire and Vivian defined by the eras in which they live?

2. Claire fixates on the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and, in particular, on the glamour of Jackie Kennedy. Why do you think Claire is so interested in Jackie? What does the myth of the Kennedys represent to Claire?

3. What is it about the disappearance of Dougie Daniels that causes Claire to reexamine her own life?

4. What do Claire and Vivian have in common as characters? Who is stronger, and who is weaker? What kind of strength does each possess?

5. Vivian loses a lover. Lotte loses a child. Peter loses his mother. Describe the different ways in which the characters in the novel experience loss.

6. Love takes both women by surprise. What does Claire’s love affair with Miles have in common with Vivian’s affair with David? How do they differ?

7. The “Claire” chapters of the novel all begin with epigraphs from Emily Post. What role do manners, etiquette, and the expectations of society have to play in the novel?

8. What does Vivian have to teach Claire, in the end? What has Vivian’s life taught her, and what wisdom does she impart?

9. Vivian says of grief, “It never really goes away, it just changes shape.” How has Vivian’s grief changed shape over the course of her life?

10. In the end, Claire asks Vivian the same question that Vivian has asked so many strangers: “Tell me about your loved one.” Do both women help each other to move on in the end?

11. In listening to mourners and telling the stories of their loved ones, Vivian finds a way of processing her own terrible loss. In your own life, do you find that sharing stories helps people process emotion and come to terms with grief? Does hearing the stories of others help?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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