Today, I want to kill two literary birds with one stone by talking about The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood – a book I really enjoyed earlier this year and this relatively modern phenomenon known as adultery in books which was immediately preceded by the adultery on papyrus and cave walls era in human history.
I loved the idea of The Obituary Writer the second I saw the title for the first time because it stirs up the notion of a story that will probably be a little bit dark, a bit romantic – in both the contemporary and classic literary sense of the word, and feature a person who engages in work that many people view as a family rite.
After developing all of these preconceived ideas, I finally had the book in hand one day and read the first line of copy,
If Claire had to look back and decide why she had the affair in the first place, she would point to the missing boy.
I would not be exaggerating if I said that first line grabbed me like many other great first lines that push you off the high board into the mood of a story. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” “I am born.” Simple sentences, but each is powerful.
From The Obituary Writer‘s first sentence we know that Claire was already teetering along a line, and that the abduction of a boy sends her across the line and into an affair that carried enough ramifications for it to merit being mused upon in retrospect and tied to the tragedy of missing child….but Claire isn’t the writer. Claire is a housewife in the post-war era struggling to find meaning in a life where her greatest thrills are making fashion guesses and trying to develop some type of relationship with her husband beyond housekeeper/sexual partner.
The actual obituary writer appears in a dual storyline that takes place at the time of the great San Francisco earthquake. Her name is Vivien, and she crafts highly heartfelt obituaries for the bereaved by listening to what they have to say about their loved ones and then seizing on the thing that set the deceased apart in a particular person’s eye.
As the book unfolds, one begins to see how the lives of the two women intersect both directly and indirectly, as they each search for something lost, whether it be love or purpose.
With the layers of this volume, I was greatly surprised to see the other reviews on Amazon and more than one review that commented on the presence of adultery in the volume….like it was a foreign concept in a literary work and this book should be judged harshly because it contained adultery….adultery that would have been immediately evident to anyone who reviewed the first page of the book in an Amazon preview (a practice I highly recommend).
I don’t like repetitive graphic sexuality if it doesn’t serve an alternate purpose for the story, but I also appreciate when a story operates outside the constraints of polite society since real life rarely operates within those constraints. And I really do not understand why someone who wants to become snobbish about projecting morality would ever venture outside of the safe confines of Dr. Seuss or strict publishing houses….or criticize that aspect….and that aspect alone of a book.
Good stories are worth much more than that.