Book Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner.

35133917Edition: Kindle

No. of Pages: 395 pages

Author: Susan Meissner

Publisher, Date: Berkley, February 2018

Setting: Philadelphia, United States of America

SynopsisFrom 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.

What I thought about the story…

I realised, upon completing the novel, As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner, that it was a huge tearjerker and a real contender for The Last Innocent Hour by Margot Abbott. Yes, I keep bringing that ebook up because it was one of the best wartime novels I’ve ever read. It was one of the best, to me.

This book targets readers who enjoy reading stories of love conquering all despite the trials and tribulations caused by the effects of war. In this novel’s case, the culprit was the Spanish flu and its victims were a family of five.

Set in 1918 in Philadelphia, Thomas Bright upended his wife Pauline and three children (Evie, Maggie and Willa) and moved them from a small town to the city of Philly so he could help his Uncle Fred with the mortuary business. Already torn and broken from the loss of their infant son, Henry, the couple as well as their three daughters tried to get a fresh start to their lives until the Spanish flu arrived. Some 675,000 Americans were stricken with the devastating influenza, with the hardest-hit city being Philadelphia. Many of the residents contracted the flu, and more than 12,000 of them died within a short period of time.

The city was hit hard for two vital reasons:

  • Many soldiers and sailors who were stationed there had already contracted the disease while abroad fighting World War I and brought it back with them to their naval bases and military quarters.
  • More than 200,000 people turned out for a huge parade that the city sponsored on the 28th of September 1918 to raise bonds for the war and to boost morale, causing the germs to spread like wildfire.

Through tears and heartbreak, the three girls and their mother narrate the entire novel, chapter by chapter, of how they had to accept the tragedy of the illness caused by the flu and the ravages of war. Lies were told to protect the innocent, emotions were smothered to survive, and the ever-changing family learns inevitably that Death is a constant and a quiet companion to everyone, including those you love and who love you in return.

The author did a fantastic job putting the focus on how death is an important part of life, on tying the deep ache and sorrow of losing a loved on, and on finding love and solace among the heartbroken relationships. I’ve never read any other books from her, but if I do come across them, I’ll be sure to give them a chance just like I did with this one.

The story then picks up again seven years later in 1925, and we learn what happened to the characters who survived and made it through that horrible period in 1918. Clearly what they witnessed and endured was not to be taken lightly and had changed them. Susan Meissner wrote well on the survival of each character in the face of tragedy and loss, as well as the tenacity of the human spirit.

It was a thoroughly engrossing story that was equally and deeply affecting, and helped shed a light on an era that is not well-known in the American history. At least, not to me. I have heard of the Spanish influenza but I didn’t know much about it until I read the book and then followed up with a brief research on Google about it. Think about it, this year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary since the Spanish flu struck.

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