Pub. Date: February 6, 2018
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Berkley!)
Summary: 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.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Top Read of the Year
2017’s A Bridge Across the Ocean was a novel that completely blew me away, immediately becoming a Top Read of the Year. It was also my introduction to Susan Meissner (!!! I KNOW), a fantastic writer with over 20 novels to her name. An impressive backlist of new-to-me authors are always a good thing! Because I was so head over heels for A Bridge Across the Ocean, it should come as NO surprise to anyone, that the second I saw her latest pop up on NG, I pounced. I can’t say it enough: A Bridge Across the Ocean was THAT good that I didn’t care what As Bright as Heaven was about, I just knew it was a book I needed in my life.
As it turns out, As Bright as Heaven is not only as good as her previous novel, it just might be even better. Going by my GoodReads rating, at least; ABAtO was a (HIGH) 4-star, ABaH is my first 5-star read of 2018.
Told in four voices: Pauline and her three daughters, Evelyn, Maggie, and little Willa, As Bright as Heaven follows the family as they leave their cozy, quiet rural town for bustling Philadelphia where Pauline’s husband has agreed to join his uncle’s funeral business. It’s apparent from the start that a funeral parlor is no place for girls, especially 6-year-old Willa, but over time, the business becomes second nature – 12-year-old Maggie even begs Pauline to be allowed to help out, curling hair and applying make-up, readying the bodies for viewings.
Whereas Maggie wants to help out as a way to be closer to her mother, Pauline has her own reasons for wanting to spend her days among the dead. Their family wasn’t always a family of daughters. Henry, the doted-upon only boy, fell ill and never recovered, passing away before his 3rd birthday. Since then, Pauline has felt Death always at hand, drawing nearer with each day.
As Bright as Heaven has SO many layers, so many stories within its pages. Maggie falls for an older neighbor boy, her young heart breaking as he leaves to go off and fight in the War. The Spanish Flu arrives in America – in Philadelphia – and I sobbed for so many characters. An baby is discovered, his mother had succumbed to the Flu, and could he possibly be what this family needs to fill the hole left by Henry’s all-too-sudden passing?
While reading, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another 2017 read I absolutely loved: The One True Love of Alice Ann. While Alice Ann was set during the days of WWII, both books featured a boy sent off to war and the girl back home waiting for him to return.
This might be a bit morbid, but I’ve always been curious about mortuary science and becoming a mortician. Pittsburgh has an Institute of Mortuary Science and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t given it some thought! The funeral parlor was such a fascinating aspect to this book and one I don’t think I’ve ever seen featured in a novel before! Things got particularly bad once the Flu struck Philadelphia, bodies were coming in faster than Thomas or his uncle could deal with. At one point, the death toll was so high, bodies were simply piled wherever there was room. Gone were the days of somber remembrances. Now viewings were no longer permitted – no one could say for certain the Flu couldn’t be passed on through the dead.
I could so easily ramble on at length about As Bright as Heaven. I tore through its 400 pages in a single sitting, it was that engrossing. Each layer to the story only added to its richness and I came to care deeply for the characters. I laughed, I ugly cried. I didn’t think a book could top A Bridge Across the Ocean, but this one did it and my first 5-star rating of 2018 was well deserved. I can’t say enough about this book. Do yourself a favor and get a copy.