Literature / The Obituary Writer

The Obituary Writer is a 2013 novel by Ann Hood that follows the lives of two women with an adulterous history. In the early 1960s, Claire Fontaine is trying her best to be a devoted housewife and mother, but enters an affair with another man in the days before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. And in 1919, Vivien Lowe, a talented obituary writer beloved for her ability to make the dead seem alive again, begins her search for her former lover, whom she desperately wants to believe did not perish during the Great San Francisco Earthquake. These two plotlines reflect off one another, carrying similar themes of loss, love, and coming to terms with their lives.

Tropes Present in the Novel

  • Adult Fear: That the novel begins with the abduction of Dougie Daniels, a neighborhood boy later found dead, really emphasizes the theme of loss throughout the story. It only gets worse when Vivien’s friend Lotte loses her daughter, Pamela, to sickness, and Claire loses hers and Peter’s baby to a sledding accident. Said sledding accident also has a brief moment where she loses sight of Kathy and fears she may have been kidnapped like Dougie.
  • An Aesop: The novel emphasizes the importance of coping with loss, but also, with the revelation that Birdy is Vivien, the necessity to move on from the tragedies in one’s life.
  • Apologizes a Lot: Claire picks up this habit during the novel, due to her guilt, which Peter comments on and criticizes.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Vivien’s story ends with the revelation that David has been dead all this time, but she manages to start a new life with Sebastian. And Claire’s story ends with the deaths of her unborn baby and the older Vivien, now known as “Birdy”, but there’s a chance that everyone will move on.
  • Christmas Cake: Kay Pendleton, the librarian who provides Vivien’s reading materials, is noted to be quite attractive, despite being a spinster. She later marries Lotte’s husband after the grief-stricken woman drowns herself.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Vivien has a talent for composing obituaries for her various clients. But when it’s for her best friend’s daughter, whom she had a good bond with, it’s decidedly harder. She still manages to pull it off.
  • Companion Cube: Claire’s daughter Kathy has her stuffed rabbit, Mimi. After they fail to bring her along to Peter’s mother’s party, Kathy complains constantly about her absence.
  • Dead All Along: Unfortunately for Vivien, it turns out that David was killed during the Earthquake by a falling support beam..
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Greatly emphasized in Claire’s story. She remembers her mother’s advice about being a dutiful wife who never questions her husband, and how the societal norm dictated that adulterous women were still expected to remain in the relationship.
  • Disappeared Dad: Peter’s father died while he was young. This is one of the things that lead to the revelation that Vivien is Birdy.
    • There’s also Miles Sullivan, whom Claire has an affair with and is seemingly the father of her unborn baby. Except, as her call to Dot reveals, Miles can’t procreate, meaning it was Peter’s. Which makes its death even sadder.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Downplayed example, but Sebastian has been holding a torch for Vivien, who really doesn’t feel much for him after remembering her relationship with David. That said, after the two make love and she finally gets closure and confirmation about David’s death, she starts a new life with him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Vivien’s final conversation with Claire reveals that Lotte, unable to cope with Pamela’s death, drowned herself.
  • Due to the Dead: Vivien Lowe makes her living from composing obituaries that beautifully celebrate the deceased loved ones of her clients, putting more emphasis on their lives than their deaths.
  • Fatal Flaw: One thing connecting both Claire and Vivien is their impulsiveness, which works into their novel-relevant affairs. It also leads the former to losing her unborn baby, and the latter to discovering the man she searched for has been Dead All Along.
  • Historical-Domain Character: John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie are quite beloved by Claire and her friends, to the point of making bets based on the color of Jackie’s clothes. Eisenhower and Nixon are also mentioned.
    • Jack London makes an appearance in the restaurant Vivien and David meet at, whom David jokes about beating up when Vivien keeps staring at him.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: One trips up Peter’s mother Birdy, an older Vivien, eventually leading to her death.
  • Infant Immortality: Tragically averted. The novel begins with the abduction and murder of a child in Claire’s neighborhood. And then Lotte’s daughter Pamela dies from sickness. And then Claire loses her baby when she makes the impulsive decision to go sledding and panics about losing Kathy.
  • It's All My Fault: A recurring attitude Vivien notes among those who consult her for composing obituaries, where they constantly blame themselves for being a few minutes too late.
    • Claire later, understandably feels guilt over her unborn baby killed in the sledding accident, to the point where she’s utterly baffled by everyone else accepting it and moving on.
  • Karma Houdini: Eventually subverted with Smythe, who is later caught and arrested for kidnapping and killing Dougie Daniels.
  • Meaningful Name: Vivien, a variation of Vivian, means “alive”. Quite fitting for someone who composes obituaries that celebrate the lives of the deceased, even if it also crosses into Ironic Name territory.
    • Sebastian, who still holds a torch for Vivien, once relates to her that his namesake is the patron saint of athletes because of his endurance. His endurance eventually pays off.
    • David means “beloved” in Hebrew. Fitting for the man Vivien still holds feelings and hope for, making it sadder when he turns out dead.
  • Posthumous Character: David, Vivien’s paramour, turns out to be an example. She even bemoans how she spent thirteen years believing he was still alive.
  • The '60s: Claire’s story is set in 1960 and 1961, with John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as a major event of the novel
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Both Claire and Vivien enter relationships with married men (the former being married, herself), and their rather sad life experiences are explored. Especially when the former becomes pregnant, and the latter pursues what may or may not be her hopefully-not-deceased lover.
  • Tranquil Fury: When Peter discovers Miles in bed with Claire, he calmly (but forcefully) tells Miles to get out. Claire herself is surprised when he acts as though he’ll hit her, but doesn’t act on it.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Claire’s narrative in the 1960s and Vivien’s in 1919 are interconnected by similar themes and the revelation that Vivien is Peter’s mother Birdy.
  • Wham Line: When Birdy comes to around Claire and Peter, she asks for David. And, in case the revelation wasn’t clear, she expresses sadness over Lotte’s loss of Pamela.
  • Your Cheating Heart: The novel deals with the aftermath of Vivien Lowe and Claire Fontaine’s affairs with David Gardner and Miles Sullivan, respectively.
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