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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Sweeping Historical Pandemic Novel Sad But Compelling

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Living in a funeral home can be just as morbid as it sounds, but for the Bright family it represents a new beginning, a chance at a better life.  Thomas and Pauline make the move to Philadelphia, miles away from their previous home, to provide a stable future for their three girls: Maggie, Willa, and Evelyn.  While Thomas learns the mortuary business from his Uncle Fred, Pauline becomes adept at doing the deceased's hair and makeup.  Although the girls are told to stay away from the business end of the home, 12-year-old Maggie is especially intrigued by her father's new job.  She doesn't care if it's not a suitable interest for a young girl, she's fascinated by what goes on in the funeral home.

The Brights haven't been in town long before the mortuary starts filling up with bodies ravaged by the effects of a vicious sickness that is sweeping through the city.  As the Spanish Flu crisis quickly becomes a pandemic, all of the Brights must pitch in to care for its victims.  Even as their own family members fall prey to the illness, they soldier on.  With conditions worsening all around them, Maggie and her mother even venture out into the frigid streets to administer to the homebound.  It's on one of these missions that Maggie makes the snap decision to rescue an orphaned infant.  Little Alex soon becomes the Brights' motivation to go on, their reason to hope for better days.

As the veil between life and death grows continually thinner, the Brights will discover what's most important and the lengths they will go to to protect the ones they love.

I've become a big fan of Susan Meissner's dual timeline novels that connect historical events with contemporary stories.  Naturally, then, I was thrilled to receive an early copy of her newest book, As Bright As Heaven.  I find pandemics like the 1918 Spanish Flu one fascinating, so I couldn't wait to dive in.  Although the story feels very episodic, with no real plot to drive it, it's still a sweeping and compelling novel.  It tells an achingly sad story that, despite its hopeful turn, remains sad.  I'm trying to figure out why I didn't love As Bright As Heaven as much as Meissner's other books.  I liked it, just didn't adore it like I wanted to.  Maybe I would have fanciedd a dual timeline version better?  I'm not sure, but in the end, I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as I wanted to.  Bummer.


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of As Bright As Heaven from the generous folks at Berkley (a division of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!


  1. I chose this as my Book of the Month pick last month. Have not read it yet. And I've not read other books by this author. Which one do you like best that you've read?

    1. I've read two others by her -- A FALL OF MARIGOLDS (about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and 9/11) and A BRIDGE ACROSS THE OCEAN about the Titanic. I liked the former best. I also think STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD sounds really good, so I just requested it from the library.

  2. Interesting setting, but it sounds like this book needed a little more story to go along with it.

    1. Exactly. It's very episodic, which makes the story seem kind of loosey-goosey. A bit of tightening and focus would have made a big difference.

  3. Sorry it disappointed you a little. It’s always sad when you’re expectations are high but the book doesn’t hold up. Maybe it was a mood thing?

    1. I still liked it. It just wasn't quite as structured as the author's other books.


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