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In her nineteenth novel, As Bright As Heaven, Susan Meissner examines the effects of devastating loss and unbreakable loyalty on a close-knit family against the backdrop of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Set in a Philadelphian undertaker’s house, As Bright as Heaven manages to simultaneously convey the dark and destructive reality of the indiscriminate disease and testify to the immeasurable capacity of families to overcome tragedy.
I fell in love with Susan Meissner’s writing last year when I read Secrets of a Charmed Life, a novel that hooked me from the first chapters and refused to let go. I expected the same of As Bright As Heaven, described on its jacket as “the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world not of their making that will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it,” and though it took somewhat longer for me to become absorbed in it, it too eventually gripped my attention. Fortunately, I read it on vacation this summer and had plenty of time to read just one more chapter.
As a result of her thoroughly executed research, Susan Meissner believably recreates mid-war Philadelphia, astutely portraying the horror of living through a sweeping pandemic that shows no mercy. In her acknowledgments she explains that she “is always on the lookout for untold stories from the past that reveal the resiliency of the human spirit despite incredibly difficult circumstances.” She goes on to add, “this historic pandemic is...millions of untold stories…[and] arguably one of the deadliest diseases in history.” The choice of this lesser-known global disaster as the backdrop for her story about life and love after loss was an astute one, making her observations on the effects of death all the more poignant.
The story opens in January 1918, eight months before the flu pandemic reached Philadelphia and ten months before the end of the war. The Bright family is grieving the loss of their infant son, Henry, born with a too-weak heart. Henry’s father, Thomas Bright, has just received an offer from his childless uncle—an undertaker in Philadelphia—to relocate from Quakertown, PA and train to take over the funeral parlour business.
In need of a fresh start, Thomas and his wife, Pauline, agree and immediately move to Philadelphia with their three daughters, Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa. Although initially forbidden from entering the embalming rooms, Pauline and Maggie are unable to suppress their curiosity. They convince the men to allow them roles in the business, and, in confronting death head-on, begin to process the overwhelming shadow of grief that Henry’s death has cast over the family.
When Thomas is called into service and the Spanish flu breaks out in Philadelphia, Pauline and her daughters must come together to survive. Pauline is fiercely protective of her daughters, but cannot resist her desire to help those who are suffering. When Maggie discovers an orphaned baby, the Brights take him in, and he becomes their lifeline as a surging sea of bodies amasses in and around their home.
The pandemic eventually passes, taking with it many of the supporting characters, and leaving the remaining Brights to rebuild their lives after incurring such devastating losses. Though each handles their grief in their own way, the adopted child connects them, securing their bonds to each other and giving them something to fight for.
Susan Meissner has tackled a difficult task in As Bright As Heaven: she pushes readers to ponder how the knowledge of our own mortality affects our choices and the risks we do and don’t decide to take. She is successful in this goal, though naturally, it makes for some fairly dark reading at times. Meissner exposes our vulnerability and helplessness in the face of such powerful forces, and questions—through her four protagonists—how people react when forced to accept the fragility of life. Should we live life to the fullest, going after everything we want with abandon, or should we play it safe, seeking the known, the comfortable, the secure? Or, is it yet possible to strike some middle ground between the two extremes?
The use of alternating narrators allows Meissner to show us how each of the Bright ladies takes her own stance on these issues and how those choices play out over the ensuing years. If you enjoy historical fiction, strong female protagonists, and stories of resilience and unbreakable family bonds, you won’t want to miss As Bright As Heaven.
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About Susan Meissner
Susan Meissner is a multi-published author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include As Bright as Heaven, starred review in Library Journal; A Bridge Across the Ocean; Secrets of Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University. Susan is a pastor’s wife and a mother of four young adults. Visit Susan at her website: http://susanlmeissner.com.