Sunday, February 11, 2018

As Bright as Heaven: Surviving And Thriving

In 1918 the Bright family leaves a tobacco farm in Quakertown, PA to move to center city Philadelphia. The father is to work for his uncle's funeral parlor, which he would then inherit. They have suffered the devastating--but at that time all too common loss--of a baby. Their grief travels with them into their new life.

In the autumn of 1918 the Spanish Influenza hits Philadelphia, leaving over 12,000 dead in its wake. The mortuary fills and the uncle dies. When a daughter falls ill, the mother keeps her alive but, worn down, succumbs and dies of the disease. Friends die, and a beloved neighbor leaves for the trenches of France. Amidst all this loss, one of the daughters rescues an infant in distress in a house full of the dead, and the child becomes the family's heart and reason to go on.

The women, the mother and her four daughters, speak in alternating chapters, their unique personalities and perspectives revealed through their own words. Philadelphia has a distinct presence, although fictionalized and geographically ambiguous at times. (The cover photo shows Logan Circle with City Hall in the background.) The time period, between 1918 and 1926, covers the flu and the war but also prohibition and the rise of the speakeasy.

The story is about people who suffer great loss and live through horrible times, who carry their ghosts and demons with them, until they are able to see that life goes on and somehow the world can be bright again.

My Goodreads friends have rated this a four or five star book and found it very engaging. So I will safely say that readers of historical fiction and woman's fiction will enjoy Meissner's book.

SPOILER ALERTS

I had several issues with the writing.

I lacked emotional connection to the characters. It could be the multitude of voices, but I think it was because the story is too much told and not enough shown. For instance, one daughter develops a crush on an older man who goes to war. He is gone for the bulk of the novel, and returns at age thirty-eight and the girl is still "in love." There is not enough interaction between them to make me believe she is "in love" with him for life. It seems contrived.

I found the book preachy and full of clich├ęd lessons. The ex-soldier, once returned home, consoles his now grown-up lover that the war was horrible and he had to heal. All this healing happened off camera and lacks emotional impact; he is just telling her a lesson he learned. Make peace with the past, he advises. Later, the foundling brother's family is discovered to be alive. The father forgives the Brights, saying that he was angry for a long time by his losses and is finally seeing there is good in life, ending with the old chestnut of 'we are all doing the best we can with what we have'. Nothing new here, kids.

And the story wrapped up with far too many predictable and implausible outcomes. I won't even go into them. There is talk of fate and destiny and finding patterns.

END OF SPOILER ALERT

Consequently, although I had looked forward to reading As Bright As Heaven, especially for its setting and the time period, I found the book an average read. For those who are not familiar with the Spanish Influenza, who like feel-good endings, and who want the horror of history softened by wish fulfillment romantic endings, this is the book for you. It was not my cup of tea.

As Bright as Heaven
by Susan Meissner
Berkley Publishing Group
Pub Date 06 Feb 2018
Hardcover $26.00
ISBN: 9780399585968

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