I’m resolving to read all of my Book of the Month books as I receive them this year, and also eliminating my little backlog from last year. My January BOTM selection was Susan Meissner’s As Bright As Heaven, a historical fiction novel that’s set to be published in early February.
About the book: The Bright family (mother, father, and three daughters) is moving to Philadelphia to take over Uncle Fred’s funeral home business. They’re still grieving the death of the son’s only family, a boy who lived to six months before a congenital heart defect killed him. In 1918, there aren’t doctors to cure what Henry has, at least not in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. So they’re moving to Philadephia for a new start, for a new perspective on death, and a chance at a better life. But trouble finds them in Phildelphia too, when the Spanish Influenza outbreak brings customers and illness to their door. The Brights must find a way to carry on after the disease rips their lives apart.
“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? Life is wonderful and beautiful but oh, how hard it can be. Dying, by contrast, is easy and simple, almost gentle. But who can I tell such a thing to? No one. I am troubled by how remarkable this feeling is.”
As Bright as Heaven was a bit too slow and sentimental for my taste. You can probably even see in the quotes I’m including here that there’s something kind of… airy about the writing. It uses a rambling, circuitous way of getting to the point. There’s also an excruciating amount of detail; some detail adds to the atmospheric quality of the book, but so many times I found myself reading about things like the color of tiles on the kitchen floor or a which park the children like to visit and what they like to do there didn’t have any bearing on the story or add to my sense of the time period. Details like that made the book seem to go on and on while I sifted through the story for the important parts.
“If people don’t do their part to stop the spread of evil when they’re asked to, it just gets stronger and then no one can stop it.”
Perhaps most importantly, I’d like to talk about the Spanish Influenza. This is the root of the book’s plot and emotion, and it comes up quickly in the synopsis. And yet only a third of the book takes place during the Spanish flu epidemic. I thought it seemed like a short section, so when I finished reading I went back to check: from the first page of the flu’s appearance to the page that says “the flu is finally leaving” is only 32% of the novel, and there’s more going on in that span than the flu alone. Of course, World War I is ongoing at the time (1918) , and the narration alternates between four perspectives: the mother and three daughters of the Bright family, who each have their own set of intrigues. I was disappointed that the most interesting part of the book, the historical part that most awoke my sense of awe and compassion, the part that convinced me to read this book in the first place, ended so quickly. That’s not how the Spanish Influenza epidemic would’ve seemed to characters living at this time.
“Death is not our foe. There is no foe. There is only the stunningly fragile human body, a holy creation capable of loving with such astonishing strength but which is weak to the curses of a fallen world. It is the frailty of flesh and blood that causes us to succumb to forces greater than ourselves. We are like butterflies, delicate and wonderful, here on earth for only a brilliant moment and then away we fly. Death is appointed merely to close to the door to our suffering and open with the gate to Paradise.”
Can you see what I mean, about the writing? It’s like a marshmallow, big and beautiful and fluffy, but so lightweight. It’s so sentimental, and I also have a hard time imagining anyone who’s dying of the Spanish flu seeing death as something beautiful. Perhaps it’s just my personal preference; I know I prefer books that tackle hard or devastating topics to do so with a light hand, to provide only the facts and let the reader be the judge of how terrible an event was by seeing how it affects the characters.
And speaking of the characters: their fates are the biggest pull for the reader throughout this novel. Especially after the flu has passed, there’s nothing to read for other than to wonder what will happen to the Bright family next. Unfortunately, I found their fates entirely too predictable for that to be a compelling mystery. In the end, it was pleasing on some level to see my guesses proved correct, even if I was a little impatient about getting there. As Bright as Heaven is the sort of book that ties all its loose ends and gives the reader the happy ending, even if it takes some traumatic detours along the way.
“There’s always a way to make something better, even if it means sweeping up the broken pieces and starting all over. That’s how we keep moving, keep breathing, keep opening our eyes every morning, even when the only thing we know for sure is that we’re still alive.”
But let’s end with some merits: the fact that the Brights are living in and operating a funeral home at the time of the Spanish flu epidemic gives the reader an interesting inside perspective on the severity of the outbreak and the horrors that even the survivors experienced. It’s also interesting to see a bit of the home perspective of the WWI effort, and the difficulty some soldiers experienced with resuming their lives afterward. And of course, with all of its superfluous details, As Bright as Heaven is very atmospheric, which is always a plus in historical fiction.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was debating between 2 and 3 stars, to be honest. If I were a person who used half stars (personally I’d rather just force myself to choose), I would’ve gone with a 2.5. The part about the Spanish flu was fascinating, and while I didn’t like the writing style I knew that was only a personal preference rather than a true fault in the writing. Sentimentality is just too sickly sweet for my liking. Give me grit. I probably won’t ever reread this book, or pick up anything else from this author, but I am more interested in the Spanish flu now so it wasn’t a total loss.
- If you’re interested in underappreciated facets of history, try Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea, a YA historical fiction about a little-known naval disaster during WWII.
- I also encourage you to pick up my favorite historical fiction novel, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a book about the aftermath of war in Afghanistan.
- And if you want something atmospheric and heart-wrenching but faster paced, try Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, a Gilded Age historical fiction mystery involving a carnival disaster, a misplaced baby, an asylum, and more.
Are you a Book of the Month member? Which book did you pick in January and what did you think of it?
The Literary Elephant