by Ilana Kurshan

What I’m Reading Now (Notes from the Nightstand of Lilith’s Book Editor)

I recently stayed up all night reading The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (Norton, $26.95), a literary novel whose chapters are alternately set in Virginia in 1960, where Claire, a Jackie Kennedy-obsessed young wife and mother finds herself no longer in love with her husband Peter; and in California in 1919, where a successful obituary writer named Vivien cannot overcome the loss of her own lover in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Whereas most historical novels that flash back and forth move from present to past, Ann Hood manages to vividly capture two very different epochs. Her writing is rich with period details, from the cans of green beans Claire warms in the evening for her husband’s dinners to the competition among her friends to guess the color of the First Lady’s dress at the next public event to her creeping sense of boredom and unease: “Looking back on that evening, Claire tried to find the beginnings of a rupture, the way they say the San Andreas fault is already cracked and over time shifts more and more until the earth finally cracks open. But she could never find even a hairline fracture. She remembers feeling satisfaction over the dull predictability of her days. If she did not feel a thrill at the sound of Peter’s key in the front door each evening, she did feel a confidence, a rightness, to the way the hours presented themselves.” Perhaps the greatest triumph of the novel is that by the time Hood deftly connects the two plot lines in a surprising climax, the reader has already unconsciously grasped that despite living decades and miles apart, women who grieve and seek consolation are all part of a universal narrative.

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