I have read so many good books lately I couldn’t decide which one to review. It was a toss up between “The Obituary Writer,” by Ann Hood and “The Secret Keeper,” by Kate Norton (I don’t know about you but any title that contains the word “secret” draws me like a magnet — maybe it was that early Nancy Drew conditioning).
Then I realized these two books have several common elements. Both tell the story from two points of view spanning many years and generations; both are fiction yet use specific historical events as their framework; both are passionate love stories dealing with loss and grief; both contain deathbed confessions between mothers and daughters; and both would make great book club choices, especially multi-generational discussions. Oh, did I mention murder and unfaithfulness? Sure to spice up any discussion.
In “The Obituary Writer,” the narrator is 23-year-old Vivian, telling her story in 1919 after she survived the Great San Francisco Earthquake. She kisses her lover, David, goodbye as he leaves for work on the morning of April 18, 1906, at 5 a.m. Twelve minutes later, her world is turned upside down in two ways. Not only does the city crumble; it sends Vivian on a 13-year quest for David, who she wholeheartedly believes survived the earthquake and is wandering around with amnesia from an injury, possibly a blow to the head. During these years, she discovers she has a gift for writing obituaries that capture the true essence of a person beyond their vital statistics. She is sought out by many who come to her in their grief to pay tribute to their loved ones. Perhaps it is her own sense of loss that allows her to be so compassionate and empathetic.
The alternating story chapters in “Obituary” takes place 2,000 miles away in Virginia and 42 years later, 1961. The narrator is Claire, early 20s, married to Peter, one of the few civilians working at the Pentagon. Kennedy has just been elected president and author Hood so effectively portrays the hopeful tone of the country and the fervor caused by America’s infatuation with Jackie. In suburbia, Claire’s friends are hosting inauguration day parties with contests like who can choose the color Jackie will wear at the inauguration ceremony. One review says the author dropped a few too many product names in her effort to re-create the ’60s, but having been Claire’s age myself at that time I found it authentic and pleasantly reminiscent. For younger readers, I think it gives an accurate picture of the times. But more importantly, this novel deals with the barriers women faced in the early 1900s as well as the ’60s. Both periods are on the brink of great changes for women and the country.
As Claire’s story opens, she too experiences a seismic shift in her life when the kidnapping of a young boy in their upscale “protected” neighborhood causes something in her to snap. She succumbs to an affair, jeopardizing her marriage to Peter and supposedly “perfect” life with their 3-year-old daughter.
The alternating chapters flow easily with two very different yet believable and sympathetic characters, both searching for love and meaning in their lives. Although years and miles apart, their stories bind and unite them in an unusual twist. No plot spoilers here, of course, but I will say that one of the reasons I recommend this as a book discussion is because I think the author leaves the ending open to the reader’s interpretation.
An extra bonus are quotes from Emily Post’s “Etiquette” as chapter markings on how to soothe the life of a grieving person.
‘The Secret Keeper’
“The Secret Keeper,” by Kate Norton also has dual narrators. The first is Laurel, 66, a successful and well-regarded actress in London in the year 2011. When she visits her dying mother, Dorothy, to celebrate her 90th birthday, a childhood memory is invoked by unusual remarks her mother makes in her dementia state. She is also clutching an old “Peter Pan” playbook with an inscription from a friend and a childhood photo of two girls Laurel has never seen before. Laurel becomes obsessed with discovering her mother’s life before she became the mother of five children with a bucolic existence in the English countryside and with uncovering the real story behind a disturbing memory her parents asked her to keep secret from her siblings.
Laurel, at age 16 in 1961, witnessed a shocking event from her perch in their garden tree house while the rest of the family gathered for a picnic birthday celebration at the nearby pond. Mother returns to the house, carrying Laurel’s baby brother, to retrieve the special knife decorated with a red bow, used specifically for the cutting of the birthday cake. This day however, her mother, knife in hand, brutally kills a man who appears on their front porch. Laurel is the only witness to the murder, which the authorities conclude was self-defense as there had been a wanted pervert reported in the area in recent months. The parents convince Laurel that it is best not to discuss this with her younger siblings and the event is never mentioned again. Laurel told the police what she saw, but it is years later that she recalls she left out one important thing she heard. The intruder called her mother by name as though he knew her well.
The alternating story in this event is mother Dorothy’s and the World War II years during the London Blitz. Through these flashbacks, amidst the bombings and escapes to air-raid shelters, we learn of Dorothy’s friendship with Vivian, her love affair with Jimmy, and a wicked blackmail plot that goes terribly wrong. Norton’s characters are fascinating and her plot line so engrossing, we find ourselves totally immersed in that time period yet easily shifting to Laurel’s present-day personal investigation, trying to piece little clues together. There is no shortage of twists and suspense, bringing us to a culmination of Dorothy’s story and Laurel’s search.
So there you have it. Two books, four main characters in four different time periods, I think they represent historical fiction at its best — vivid portrayals of the times told through riveting personal stories. Final ironic trivia — both books have a main character named Vivian and both stories have mothers celebrating a significant birthday (one 80, one 90), which serves as the catalyst for the unraveling of their past lives.
This is Norton’s fourth novel and Hood has been writing short stories and novels since the late ’80s. If these two books are any indication, I am looking forward to some good reading, catching up with their earlier writings.
• Former bookstore owner Vy Armour has been a resident of Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 20 years. She is an adjunct instructor in communications at the University of Phoenix and reviews books on her blog, http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.