Narrative structure isn't very sexy and it's not the first thing most people notice about a novel. Although I, too, like a lively plot and character development, I always find myself drawing the architecture nof the narrative. Where are the characters, how did they get there, what changes when they move about, do we get to see them moving (on the train, in the carriage, etc.), and do we move around in time as well as in space during the course of the story?
The narrative structure of Ann Hood's The Obituary Writer (2013) is divided into two times and places: San Francisco at the time of the earthquake, moving to Napa during the early 20th century. And 1961 in Arlington, Virginia, and Providence, Rhode Island. The obituary writer is a woman, Vivien Lowe, who was in the middle of a passionate affair with a married man in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake occurred and her lover was killed. Vivien's best friend has married a vintner and moved to Napa Valley and in the wake of the destruction of her life, Vivien moves to the town of Napa to be near her friend. It is there that she begins writing obituaries. These are not the usual obits we are used to, telling us the degrees the dead person earned and his jobs and the awards he was given. She writes instead about what the person loved, what her friends loved about her, little vignettes of her life.
We meet her in 1917 when she has just read in a newspaper story that a man with amnesia who fits the description of her lover is said to be in a Denver hospital. This raises hopes that her lover is not really dead and she prepares to take the train to Denver when an unexpected death keeps her in Napa.
The second woman, Claire, has been having a passionate affair in Northern Virginia in 1960 until her husband, Peter, comes home and finds her with her lover. She soon finds she is pregnant and thinks the child is that of this other man. She doesn't know what to do - stay with her difficult husband or leave to be with the father of her child.
The family goes to Providence, Rhode Island, to celebrate the birthday of Peter's mother, whom everyone calls Birdy. When Birdy has a heart attack and Claire a serious accident, Claire becomes closer to her mother-in-law.
And eventually some characters find the love they seek and others come to understand who they are and what they can do with their lives. A very satisfying book.