As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner was published by Penguin USA in February 2018. Since then it’s become the book everyone is talking about. Our USA book blogger, Kimberly Livingston was delighted to review and share her thoughts with us.
From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean comes a new novel set in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which tells the story of a family reborn through loss and love.
In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.
But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.
As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world, not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.
As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner is destined to be the book to talk about. Its title will be tossed around in staff lounges and book clubs and mom (and dad) groups everywhere (À la All the Light We Cannot See). The story will be discussed and ruminated on, and it will stay with its readers for a very, very long time.
There are great novels and great pieces of literary work and As Bright As Heaven is both. I found myself many times rereading a section, not because I didn’t understand it, but because I wanted to taste the way Ms. Meissner had written a particular idea one more time. In her author’s note at the back of the book Ms. Meissner states that she had very specific questions that she wanted the reader to ponder while reading the story. Well done to her, for certainly she has met her goal. Two quotes at the very beginning of the book started my thinking in the direction I believe Ms. Meissner had hoped:
“I no longer fear Death, though I know that I should. I’m strangely at peace with what I used to think of as my enemy. Living seems more the taskmaster of the two, doesn’t it?”
In just the next chapter she writes:
“….I’d found out how fast things can change. You think you have a view of what’s waiting for you just up the road, but then something happens, and you find out pretty quick you were looking at the wrong road.”
As Bright As Heaven is the story of the Bright family; Thomas and Pauline and their daughters Maggie, Evelyn, and Willa. Alternate chapters are told from the viewpoint of each of the females in the family. I love this type of point of view perspective in a novel, but it especially seemed to lend itself well to this one. This historical novel is based on the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out nearly fifty million people worldwide, though very few people know much if anything about it. My own great grandmother died at about that time period, and I wonder now if perhaps she died from the illness. While the background for the story seems grim, the underlying message is one of hope and moving on.
“We find a way to move forward, even if it means starting over.
That’s how it is.
That’s what we do.”
I will not lie. I don’t wish for bad things to happen in stories any more than I wish they would happen in real life. I am a Happily Ever After girl through and through. In As Bright As Heaven, though, the events that make our hearts hurt just a little are not written with callous. They are not written without some foreshadowing to help prepare for the pain. They are written with love and for a reason; to answer the question that Ms. Meissner had in mind as she wrote:
“How does this knowledge that we are mortal affect our choices? The risks we take? The risks we don’t? …… We are, all of us, living out the stories of our lives. Each of our stories will end, in time, but meanwhile, we fill the pages of our existences with all the love we can, for as long as we can. This is how we make a life.”
Thank you to Penguin Random House books and Ms. Meissner for the opportunity to read and review this unforgettable novel.
Review by Kimberly Livingston, USA Book Blogger, on behalf of Love Books Group.
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