The Obituary Writer intercuts the stories of two women. Vivien Lowe is a young single woman in San Francisco in the early 1900s. She meets a suave older man, David, and falls in love. Soon, she is defying convention by living with David. Then, on the day of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, David disappears. While it is obvious to everyone else that David is dead, Vivien cannot accept that fact. She becomes obsessed with the idea that he has amnesia and is somewhere in the world, lost and unable to find his way back to her. After moving to Napa to escape the memories in the city and to be near her friend Lottie, she by accident becomes a writer of nontraditional obituaries that uncannily capture the character of the deceased and provide genuine comfort to the bereaved. Still, Vivien herself cannot move past her grief for David, more than a decade after his disappearance.
The second character is Claire, a pregnant wife and mother in 1961. While working on the Kennedy campaign, Claire started an affair with another volunteer; eventually, her husband Peter found Claire and her lover together. Now she has broken off the affair but believes that the child she is carrying is her lover's rather than her husband's. The family sets out in the midst of a blizzard to drive from Virginia to Rhode Island for Peter's mother's 80th birthday. The trip is a disaster from the start, and Claire spends most of it wondering how she can possibly stay married to Peter, who treats her like a child who's been bad.
Although Claire is in a situation that anyone who remembers gender relations in the 1960s can feel sympathy for, she is not a sympathetic character and it's hard to care very much about her story, which casts both men and women in the early 60s in a rather unfavorable light (the men are condescending and overbearing; the women are consumed with trivial concerns). Vivien and her story are much more interesting and better able to carry the weight of the themes that Hood wants the reader to consider--grief and loss, hope, love in its many varieties. The mystery of how the two stories relate isn't revealed until near the end of the book, but it was fairly easy to guess before too many chapters had gone by.
The Obituary Writer isn't a bad book, but had Hood created a Claire who could balance Vivian, it could have been a very good book.
The parents of dead children wail. They pull at their clothes and their hair, as if they need to leave their bodies, shed their skin, disappear.
This was how to help a family who had just lost their child. Wash the clothes. Make soup. Don't ask them what they need. Bring them what they need. Keep them warm. Listen to them rant and cry and tell their story over and over.