#BookReview: As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

Historical Women's Fiction

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From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean comes a new novel set in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which tells the story of a family reborn through loss and love.

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.

As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world, not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.

I barely glanced at the jacket description of Susan Meissner’s As Bright as Heaven before starting in
on it. “Spanish flu epidemic of 1918” and “Great War” were the only words that registered, but I’m something a cheap date when it comes to books and those two references were enough to get me going. I didn’t finish the blurb and I didn’t read any of the reviews so despite coming to this book six months after its release, I was a virtual blank slate.

Something I loved about this novel is how Meissner showcases this chapter of American history through children. Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa Bright are adolescents when war is declared and the epidemic strikes. They come of age during intense and uncertain circumstances and it shapes each of them differently.

The fact that Brights live in a funeral home also struck my imagination as it granted the family a singular relationship with death. A pragmatic understanding of morality exists hand in hand with an acute empathy for the deceased and the loved ones they left behind, and I liked how even the inhabitants of the Bright home, people who deal in death and grieving, are shaken by the magnitude of the tragedy in as experienced in Philadelphia.

The ending of the novel felt a little coincidental to me, but the course of events creates such beautiful thematic symmetry that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Maggie’s story in particular and the parallel it draws to more recognizable examples of post-traumatic stress disorder really hit home with me, but all the characters experience something noteworthy and I think readers would be hard-pressed to be unmoved by their story.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: August 31, 2018

“Home isn't a safe place where everything stays the same; it's a place where you are safe and loved despite nothing staying the same.”