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Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven

by Marianne Wiggins

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Before his thirtieth birthday Holden Garfield has already burned out as a journalist in war-torn Bosnia. Returning to the United States, he hopes the familiar sunshine and rolling hills of Virginia will help him put aside the horrors he reported. Instead he finds Melanie, his mentor's sister, who is institutionalized with a mysterious amnesia after her husband and


Before his thirtieth birthday Holden Garfield has already burned out as a journalist in war-torn Bosnia. Returning to the United States, he hopes the familiar sunshine and rolling hills of Virginia will help him put aside the horrors he reported. Instead he finds Melanie, his mentor's sister, who is institutionalized with a mysterious amnesia after her husband and son were killed five weeks earlier by a freak force of nature. Struck as if by lightning by her beauty, Holden sets out to help her reconstruct her past, and the pair is swept up in a passionate love affair — one fighting to remember, the other struggling to forget.
With this breakneck story of love and loss, Marianne Wiggins delivers a compelling novel that is a series of powerful metaphors for the curative forces of love as well as her own personal love letter to the American South.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Library Journal A real tour de force on the immensity of human loss.

Men's Journal A strange and savage little masterpiece.

The Washington Post Book World Marianne Wiggins dares to make fictions that stand in the face of heart-cracking circumstance, fictions that, in fact, resound with hearts shattering.

Library Journal Wiggins writes stunningly polished prose that is both quirky and urgent, letting slip clues to both Holden's and Melanie's situations as the plot builds with a roar to the final blowout.

Men's Journal She writes with the staccato authority of an Uzi.... She wastes no words, thrusting scene upon scene into your face.

The New York Times Book Review Wiggins is a writer of substantial gifts....Passion develops through hidden chains of causality, so we never know exactly where or when it's going to strike....Almost Heaven bristles with meteorological imagery — from heat waves to hailstorms to torrential rain — all of it related to the emotional lives of her characters.

Booklist Wiggins is one of those critically acclaimed authors whose books acquire passionate followings...[like] other southern writers who find passion to be a source of both salvation and gothic nightmare.

The Washington Post Book World Wiggins unabashedly tackles the biggest themes: the vicious randomness of "acts of God" and our attempts to grapple with them; the individual's understanding of itself and the role of memory in that construction; and the endless repetitions of history and tragedy.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Heavy-handed symbolism and cryptic plot elements undermine Wiggins's (John Dollar) otherwise provocative novel about two people stunned by grief. Burned-out, Harvard-educated foreign correspondent Holden Garfield wishes he could erase his memories of the war in Bosnia, especially that of a crucified baby nailed to a tree. Melanie Page has also suffered trauma, but hers is so severe--she witnessed the death of her husband and four sons in a tornado--that her memory has vanished. Ironically, Holden may hold the key to her recovery, since his mentor and old friend was Melanie's brother, Noah Johns, who has gone underground for mysterious reasons. Holden decides to take Melanie (who now calls herself Johnnie) from the psychiatric wing of a Virginia hospital to South Dakota, where Noah is hiding. The journey becomes a quest for both of them and is complicated by sexual passion and Melanie's age: she is old enough to be Holden's mother. Holden is a puzzling figure: he calls his mother Kanga and his father Pooh; he has two college friends named Syd, who are marrying each other. He talks in insistently idiomatic dialogue, and Wiggins describes his thoughts in abrupt fragments meant to demonstrate his wired mental state. Wiggins's writing is intelligent, yet her manipulation of characters and themes is blatant. In addition to the repetitive connection between weather and human relationships, she offers interesting meditations on guilt; the mechanism and gestalt of memory and its "dark twin," amnesia; psychoanalytic theory; and the culture of the South. Her premise is promising: "If she could help him to forget [the horrors of war], he could help her to remember... they could learn to face their grief together." But the novel's abrupt and melodramatic conclusion (that we never learn why Noah is hiding is only one of the loose ends) leaves too many issues and relationships unresolved.
Library Journal
Holden Garfield is only in his thirties, but as a correpondent in war-ravaged Bosnia, he has already hit burnout. Yet when he returns home he encounters a tragedy that dwarfs his own pain even as it personalizes all the violence he has witnessed: the sister of a good friend has lost her entire family--husband and four sons--in a freak accident and is hospitalized with amnesia. Only the brother can help restore her, but he's in hiding because of a delicate personal situation, so Holden determines to bring Melanie to her brother--and in the process falls in love. Wiggins (Eveless Eden, LJ 10/1/95) writes stunningly polished prose that is both quirky and urgent, letting slip clues to both Holden's and Melanie's situations as the plot builds with a roar to the final blowout. A real tour de force on the immensity of human loss; highly recommended.
...[F]illed with exasperating scences packed with exasperating details and performed by exasperating characters....there's very little in this novel that's worthwhile. In the end, Almost Heaven is interesting only as proof of the fact that good authors sometimes misfire badly. -- Time Out New York
Peter Kurth
The real main character in Marianne Wiggins' apocalyptic new novel, Almost Heaven, is neither Holden Garfield, the burned-out, bummed-out foreign correspondent who is ostensibly the story's protagonist, nor Melanie John, the fragile amnesiac with whom Garfield falls hopelessly and disastrously in love, but rather, as it happens, the weather. As in meteorology. In her earlier novels, the beautiful John Dollar and the lesser-known Eveless Eden Wiggins wrestled with the horrors of colonialism and the evils of post-Communist Romania, respectively. Here she's back on American soil in a story about Memory. Passion. Loss. -- and lightning bolts. Almost Heaven springs fully armed from Wiggins' often portentous sensibility, and what better way to show it than through massing thunderclouds, drenching rain, pounding hail and a final, climactic tornado?

"A hailstorm strikes the way a plague of locusts does in the Bible," Wiggins writes, "like a tornado does -- in a band. You can be standing over there on the eighth hole halfway around the course, about to swing onto the ninth, and a light rain might start to fall where you are while over at the next hole a shaft of graupel will be rattling, rat-a-tatting turf with icy grapeshot." Thematically, the ever-menacing skies perfectly suit Wiggins' broody purpose and what appears to be her absolute despair at the state of the world. "All you can expect from life is the unexpected," she remarks. "The only thing you get with any luck is a chance to wrestle with it and pray it doesn't kill you first."

As to plot, Almost Heaven is part love story, part psychodrama and part balderdash, in no particular order. Holden Garfield -- why does Wiggins call him that? -- has just returned to the United States after eight years as a reporter for Newsweek in Eastern Europe, most recently in Srebrenica, where he's seen a Bosnian child nailed to a tree and heard the cries of mothers in his sleep. Already struggling with a soul-killing gloom, he is drawn unexpectedly to Richmond, Va., and the beautiful, tragic Melanie, the sister of his friend and mentor Noah John -- the hero of Eveless Eden -- who has seen her husband and four sons killed in an auto accident and suffers from "hysterical amnesia" as a result. Melanie is unable to remember anything that's happened to her since 1975, not that the date matters, since "the truth" doesn't become clear to anyone until a tornado strikes (significantly, at a monument to Jefferson Davis in Kentucky).

"A little late in piecing it together," Wiggins observes, "as soon as Holden sees the cloud he makes the silent prayer, '-- oh god, just let it thunder -- let it just be lightning, lord.'" You can't escape the feeling -- speaking of weather -- that Almost Heaven is itself a blast of hot air, but Wiggins writes so richly, so atmospherically, that you're willing to forgive her fancier flights. "Where do dreams go when they die?" she asks. Don't let sentences like that distract you. Just experience the book like a sudden squall and you'll be fine.--Salon Sept. 17, 1998

Kirkus Reviews
Wiggins's latest (after Eyeless Eden, 1995, etc.) has its moments of strong pull but suffers badly from the strains of a cripplingly jejune star and an authorial craving for Big Significance. Holden Garfield is eight years out of Harvard and in the US again after having spent those years in Bosnia reporting for 'Newsweek'. The atrocities he saw, especially in the killing field of Srebrenica, have plunged him into a career-crisis of perfervid self-doubt ("Something must have happened./He'd remember in a minute./Where do dreams go when they die?"). In Europe, he knew the journalist nonpareil Noah John, who, it happens, has a sister in Richmond, Virginia, in hysterical amnesia from the unspeakable experience of seeing her husband and four sons all killed. Named Melanie, she can now remember the distant past and the present but nothing in the middle, including her own identity, and the doctor thinks that Noah could help, being trusted brother and able to fill her in gently about who she is and what's happened. Trouble is, Noah's all tied up, by international intrigue, you might guess if you'd read Wiggins's previous book, and can't make it to Virginia. Enter Holden, who goes to see what he can do, falls in love with Melanie at first sight (in the hospital ward), finds out that Noah is in South Dakota and can't budge, and then, against doctor's advice, pops Melanie into a van and heads west. On the road, things deteriorate appallingly as Holden makes love like crazy (against more doctor's advice) with Melanie, reveals himself to have about as much depth or sensitivity as a spoiled teenager, and clumsily brings about tale's end. Best sections are those about Melanie's clinicaldiagnosis; worst those when dim Holden ("'No', he finally has the balls to tell her.") takes absurd charge (he's in waaaay over his head with this one. )Ambitious enough, but every seam shows and the frame is wrenched.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
0.51(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Inside the cloud the future storm was staging, its raging eye caged in its fist, its potential for destruction masquerading as soft lofty brume: just another summer's afternoon in heaven.

This was weather: this is what the country was about.

Everywhere we went--New England or New York, the North, the South, the Plains states or the West--we talked about the weather. Because weather was news. For two nights in a row now, all the networks had led the evening news with bulletins about the weather: a heatwave in the South, a drought in the Midwest, a twister down in Texas.

This meant something, Holden knew. This meant something big. Something strange was going on. You can't stop feeling something strange is going on when people disappear entirely from the narrative, from news--when news starts coming at you faceless.

That's what news about the weather is, it's faceless.

It's the absence of man's fingerprint on history.

It's the advent of a new age of news where the only things worth sending crews to are encounters of the katabatic kind.
To hell with Bosnia. To hell with Kurds. To hell with Cuba when a cyclonic force is massing on the ocean off the coast of Florida and a robot in a satellite is on location, live.

That is our news in the millennium.

To hell with 60 Minutes and The New York Times. To hell with The Economist, Le Monde, the Beeb, Bernstein and Woodward. Honey, they are old and cold and it is hot out there. And you can catch a headline on the Weather Channel any time of day.

"D'ja hear about that heat they's havin' in the South?" the taxi driver asks him at the airport.

"What kindaheat?"

"It's record breakin'. Scary."

"What's so scary about heat?"

"Murder rate goes up. People lose their cool. Me, I'm prayin' soon a blizzard will move in."

In August, Holden emphasizes.

It's a long shot, the driver shrugs. But stranger things has happen, he's been told.

Meanwhile August in Virginia brews daily rain.

Baking air moils upward in a mass so solid you can see it. Sometimes it sits, yellow, stinking on the James, on Ol' Jim River, like an invalid too sick to rise. Sometimes it creeps into the city, seeks its dissipation in the streets. It stares at us, the heat: it draws its bead on us and makes us plead for breeze. It smothers us in sheets. It drives us crazy.

Every evening, from the creaking porches, from the screened-in vistas of the suburbs, from the fields of brown tobacco leaf and crackling corn in Surry and in Prince George Counties, we look skyward as the day fades, and we read the clouds. Without knowing we are learning how, we learn to forecast August thunderstorms by omens, from the signs. We learn to tell when it is coming--rain.

Sometimes it's the birds who give the game away, taking to the trees.

Sometimes it's a smell, the smell of copper when the sky goes green.

Sometimes it's the rhumatiz, lightnin' in our bones.

People who can read it best, the best storm prophets, are the ones who navigate through thunder on their runs to heaven and they had kept his airplane on the ground. Hour had ticked by. Then another. Two. The afternoon passed. The sky above the runways had turned dark, an amber welt had risen where the sun had slipped into the Potomac. Holden had been traveling by plane for more than fifty hours and he hadn't slept. Or at least he felt as if he hadn't slept. And anyway he had no memory of it. Sleep. Do we remember sleeping?

Or do we just remember dreams.

His only recent memory was of travel. Traveling from place to place where all the places seemed the same: He had gone from Sarajevo in an armored transport two, maybe it was now three, days ago. Since then he had been moving like a mechanized target through what seemed to be a single firing range along a midway of a carnival: series of airports: Belgrade/Frankfurt/Dulles/National. At some point, too, in the last fifty hours, he had taken a taxi into D.C. and checked into the Hay-Adams. His heart, perhaps to prove that it was ticking, skipped a beat when he caught sight of his nation's Capitol, its pearly dome, in--what else?--dawns early light. It had been morning: shit: this morning. Checking his watch against the local time on the Arrivals and Departures screen, he starts to realize just how well and truly fucked he is. Completely hammered. No idea where he is in terms of days. "Scuse me," he says. He leans forward toward this fat guy in a baseball cap. The cap--black cap--has Orioles in fancy script across the front of it in orange. "What day is this?"

"I'm with you pal," the guy responds.

"You're with me . . . ?"

"If I'd drove I'd been back by now. It's the friggin' weather."

"The weather, yeah. Everywhere you go. There it is. Weather."

"Wasn't always, though."



"Oh, like in the good ol' days . . ."


". . . when there wasn't any weather."

"No there was weather. Didn't stop us doin' what we wanted though. When we wanted to. Didn't have these laws back then."

". . . the weather didn't."

"Back then the weather--it just was. Pure and simple. You could fly whenever you damn wanted. Go wherever. No one told you what was safe to fly or where or when to fly it. Took your life into your hands and flew. Now it's all this govment regulation."

"Uh-huh," Holden confirms. "You got some problem with air safety?"

"Where you from?"


"Why what?"

"Why's it matter to you where I'm from?"

"Nothing. Maybe we both know someone. It's just a way of finding out."

"Like who?"

"Anybody. Someone."

"What is that, some kind of code?"

"For what?"

"I don't know--the Masons. Fellows in Christ . . . what difference does it make?"

"What are you, paranoid?"

"Absolutely. Like if I'm paranoid I'm gonna sit here and admit it. To some guy in a bird hat, even."

"Hey the Orioles ain't birds."

"And hey the Redskins ain't the first Americans . . ."

That little inner mechanism that functions as his combination shit detector/smoke alarm goes off, reminding him to check his attitude.

"So is it Sunday?" he asks. "Or have I skipped a day somewhere?"

The guy just stares at him.

"I've been traveling without a break for almost fifty hours," Holden volunteers.

"Been on the road, have you?" the guys asks real sarcastic.

"More like in the air. "

"Since when?"

"Since Thursday."

"No I mean since where from?"

"From Srebrenica."

Guy grunts.

"That's in your former Yugoslavia," Holden condescends. "Don't tell me you never heard of Yugoslavia . . ."

Guy grunts again.

"Ever hear of newspapers? Ever read one?"

"How old are you, son--twenty-three, twenty-four? Cause you're an angry little shit for somebody your age."

"Twenty-nine, actually. And all I asked was what day it is."


"Thank you."

"August six. Ever heard of that? Dropped the goods on Hiroshima. You weren't even born."

"No. I wasn't. And frankly, that's my virtue."

"What is?"

"That I don't have to be your history lesson."

Guy leans forward on his knees and jabs a finger at him. "Oh but son, you are . . ."

Oh, man: things weren't always thus.

Once upon a time he'd been this wunderkind from Brookline, Massachusetts. Only child--apple of his mothers eye, spoiled rotten to the core in Dad's opinion. Eager beaver smart-ass type, a jerk with girls. Verbal wizard, parents were the kind who talked things through. Things like The Environment. The Holocaust. Civil Disobedience. Our Role in Nicaragua. First kid in the neighborhood to own Nintendo. First to write a paper (after Star Wars) on the probable effect of computer graphics on the movie industry. First to start his own retirement fund (age twelve). First to run the Boston Marathon. First to keep a crimson banner in his junior high school locker that said Harvard.

Yes indeedy he was going to be a millionaire by thirty: meet his Ur-Babe snowboarding in Telluride: give her that black lab in place of an engagement ring: fuck like rabbits: help her write her Ph.D. dissertation on pediatric mood disorders. Easy peasy: loft conversion in Tribeca, house on Tangier island, Chesapeake. Career in . . . ? Politics? Land and/or water rights? Venture cap? Made no difference, really. Career was just a conduit from studenthood to tonsa-money.
So then what happened.

Something must have happened.

He'd remember in a minute.

Where do dreams go when they die?

Come to think of it there was never any weather in your former Yugoslavia. People died and people starved and people turned venous blue with cold but all the while he never noticed weather. Even though there must have been some. What the sky looked like behind the shelling. Why everybody said their legs were cold. How everybody's boots got soaked. Why everything was drenched. You just don't see specific weather when you're in a general climate. When that climate is called war. Nobody's ever gonna ask you, Bosnia? Oh really? What's the weather like out there?

Meet the Author

Marianne Wiggins is the author of seven books of fiction including John Dollar and Evidence of Things Unseen. She has won an NEA grant, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and she was a National Book Award finalist in fiction for Evidence of Things Unseen.

Brief Biography

Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:
September 8, 1947
Place of Birth:
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Manheim Township High School, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

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