As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner, my January Book of the Month Book Club Pick
I love when a book makes you experience emotions in such a powerful way that days after turning the last page, you find yourself still completely immersed in that world. Such is the case with As Bright as Heaven, a stunning and intimate family saga that follows the lives of the Bright family women as they experience life against the backdrop of World War I-era Philadelphia during the little know Spanish flu pandemic that took thousands of American lives.
The novel opens with heartbreak: Pauline Bright is reeling from the sudden and tragic death of her infant son when her husband is offered the opportunity to help his brother run the family funeral home in the big city of Philadelphia. The family jumps at the chance to leave their sleepy farm town and create a new beginning. Though their three daughters don't understand why they have to leave all they have ever known behind, they soon become absorbed in their new daily life at the mortuary. Each daughter begins to find her way and assert her independence, encouraged by her parents to explore and take in all that Philadelphia has to offer. Evelyn is fascinated by books, science and anatomy and her new environment (though morbid), feeds her passion for knowledge of these things. Maggie helps Pauline style the hair and the make-up of the deceased that come through their doors and Willa is a precocious teenager blessed with the gift of song. Even though they are surrounded by death daily, Pauline and her daughters grow, laugh, love and slowly begin to heal.
Then the flu strikes and no one is safe. Bodies begin to pile up at their door as the death toll sky rockets and the Bright women find themselves fighting to stay healthy and help those around them. A decision is made one night that will alter the courses of their lives forever and no one in the house will ever be the same. Meissner has penned a beautifully constructed world dominated with female protagonists that at times find themselves completely devastated, only to rise infused with hope and determination to survive. This is a story about family and the resiliency of the female spirit, about grace in the face of adversity and all the little moments that bring joy.