As Bright as Heaven

As Bright as Heaven

by Susan Meissner

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From the acclaimed author of A Bridge Across the Ocean and The Last Year of the War 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399585982
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 14,095
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Susan Meissner is a former managing editor of a weekly newspaper and an award-winning columnist. She is the award-winning author of A Bridge Across the Ocean, Secrets of a Charmed Life, A Fall of Marigolds, and Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, among other novels.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

¥January 1918¥


Morning light shimmers on the apricot horizon as I stand at the place where my baby boy rests. Stouthearted chickadees are singing in the day, just like they have done every other winter's dawn, but when this same sun sets tonight, I will be miles away from them, and inside an unfamiliar house. There will be no reminders anywhere that Henry was ever mine. Not visible ones, anyway.

I kneel on the dead grass, brittle with icy moisture. The fabric of my skirt draws in the chilled damp, as if it is parched with thirst. The growing wetness at my knees is unhurried and easy, like a clean, slow blade. I look at the little marble slab that bears Henry's name and the carving of a sweet lamb curled up among lilies, and I'm reminded again that he was my angel child, even before he flew away to heaven.

From the moment I held my boy, glistening and new, I knew that he wasn't like the other babies I'd given birth to. He wasn't like my girls. They'd slipped out annoyed by the noise and chill and sharp edges of this world. Not Henry. He didn't cry. He didn't curl his tiny hands into fists. He didn't shout his displeasure at being pulled out of the only safe place he knew.

When the doctor placed him in my arms, Henry merely looked at me with eyes so blue they could've been sapphires. He held my gaze like he knew who I was. Knew everything about me. Like he still had the breath of eternity in his lungs.

He didn't care when I parted the folds of his blanket to look at his maleness and marvel at the pearly sheen of his skin against mine. I could scarcely believe I'd given birth to a boy after three girls and so many years since the last one. I just kept staring at Henry and he just let me.

When Thomas was let into the room, he was as astonished that we had a son as I was. The girls were, too. They followed in right after their father, even though it was the middle of the night, and we all gazed and grinned at the little man-child, the quiet lad who did not cry.

My father-in-law came over the next morning, as did Thomas's brothers and their wives, all of them smelling of dried tobacco leaves and spice. My parents came, too, and my sister, Jane, who was newly pregnant with her own child after several years of hoping and praying for a baby. They all marveled at how beautiful Henry was, how calm, how enchanting his gaze and how sweet his temperament. My mother and Thomas's sisters-in-law stared at him like I'd done the night before, amazed as I had been at how serene this baby was. They had known, too, without knowing, that something wasn't right.

The few months we had with Henry were wonder filled and happy. He did all the things a baby does that make you smile and laugh and want to kiss his downy head. When he needed something, like my breast or a clean diaper or affection, he didn't wail; he merely sighed a sweet little sound that if it were made of words would have started with "If it's not too much trouble . . ." We didn't know he didn't have the physical strength to exert himself. His perfectly formed outsides hid the too-small, too-weak heart that my body had made for him.

And yet had God asked me ahead of time if I wanted this sweet child for just shy of half a year, I still would have said yes. Even now, eight weeks after Henry's passing, and even when I hold Jane's sweet little newborn, Curtis, I would still say yes.

I don't know if Thomas feels this way, and I know the girls don't. Evelyn is still sad, Maggie is still angry, and Willa is still bewildered that Henry was taken from us. I can't say why I am none of those things anymore. What I feel inside, I'm not sure there are words to describe. I should still be sad, angry, and bewildered, but instead I feel a numbness regarding Death that I've told no one about. Not even Thomas.

I no longer fear Death, though I know that I should. I'm strangely at peace with what I used to think of as my enemy. Living seems more the taskmaster of the two, doesn't it? Life is wonderful and beautiful but oh, how hard it can be. Dying, by contrast, is easy and simple, almost gentle. But who can I tell such a thing to? No one. I am troubled by how remarkable this feeling is.

This is why I changed my mind about moving to Philadelphia. I'd said no the first time Thomas's uncle made his offer even though I could tell my husband was interested. Back then I couldn't imagine leaving this sleepy little town where I've lived all my life, couldn't imagine leaving my parents, though I've never been especially dependent on their subtle shows of affection. I didn't want to move to the city, where the war in Europe would somehow seem closer, didn't want to uproot the girls from the only home they've ever known. Didn't want to tear myself away from all that was familiar. Uncle Fred wrote again a couple months after Henry was born, and Thomas had said we needed to think carefully before turning down a second invitation.

"Uncle Fred might take his offer to one of my brothers," Thomas had told me.

I truly would have given the matter more serious thought if Henry hadn't begun his slow ascent away from us right about the same time. When my son's fragile heart finally began to number his days, nothing else mattered but holding on to him as long as we could. Thomas didn't bring up the matter again when the third letter from Uncle Fred arrived last week. My husband thinks I cannot leave this little mound of grass.

But the truth is, I have come out from under the shroud of sorrow a different person. I no longer want to stay in this place where Henry spent such a short time. I don't want Thomas shading a view of the wide horizon with hands calloused from binder leaves. I don't want the girls to end up mirroring this life of mine, in a place where nothing truly changes but the contours of your heart.

More than that, I want to know why Death seems to walk beside me like a companion now rather than prowling behind like a shadowy specter. Surely the answers await me in Uncle Fred's funeral parlor, where he readies the deceased for their journeys home. Thomas would've gone to his grave rolling cigars for other men to smoke, but now he will one day inherit Uncle Fred's mortuary business and then he won't be under the thumb of anyone.

I don't know what it is like to be the wife of an undertaker. I only know that I need to remember how it was to keep Death at a distance.

I kneel, kiss my fingertips, and brush them against the H carved into the cold stone.

And I rise from the wet ground without saying good-bye.

Chapter 2


I will miss the curing barn in autumn, when the tobacco leaves hang from the laths like golden skirts in a wardrobe. I've always loved how in October the papery leaves smell like cedar, molasses, and tree bark. There won't be anything like them in Philadelphia. And we'll be long gone by the time October comes around again.

The curing barn is my favorite place because it's either as busy as a beehive or as still as a painting. After that first killing frost it's like the painting, so still and quiet you can forget there's a changing world outside. No one has to do anything in the curing barn in the fall except have a look-see now and then to make sure none of the tobacco leaves are getting moldy. In the fall, we're all in the rolling room. I'm twelve but I've the delicate hands of a young woman, Grandad says, so I roll a nice cigar. Evie just turned fifteen and doesn't like rolling; she'd rather be reading under the locust tree when the weather's nice, but she likes to buy books with the money she earns. Our younger sister, Willa, is only six. It would've been a long while before Grandad told her she had hands as graceful as a dancer and rolled a cigar better than a man did.

I don't usually spend much time in the barn when the tobacco leaves are finished with their curing, but that was where I was when Mama told Papa she'd seen Uncle Fred's letter. I'd come home from school, done my chores, and then walked across the snowy field from our house to lie among the few remaining wooden slats that still held their toast-colored leaves. I'd been going to the curing barn a lot since my baby brother died, but Papa had forgotten I was there.

"I've been thinking about Philadelphia," Mama said. Papa had been checking the empty laths for rot and weak spots. He was a couple rows over from me, and I was on my back on the dirt behind a crate, looking up at the leafy ball gowns. The last time Mama had been to Philadelphia was when Henry was still alive. She and Evie had taken him to see a doctor, and they'd come home with the awful news that he wasn't going to get better. There was no doctor in the city or on the face of the whole earth who could cure Henry.

"I think we should go," Mama had said.

At first I thought Willa must be sick now, and that was why Mama wanted to go to Philadelphia again. Or Evie. Or maybe I was the sick one and I didn't even know it yet. But then Mama added she'd seen Uncle Fred's latest letter asking Papa to come work for him in Philadelphia, and now she was thinking it was a good idea after all.

"What made you change your mind?" Papa sounded surprised.

A second or two went by before Mama answered him. "Everything."

Papa paused a moment, too, before he said, "If we do this, I don't think we can undo it."

"I know."

"We won't be able to get back here that often, Pauline. Not at first."

"I know that, too," Mama said. "If I can bring the girls back to see the family for a week or two in the summer, I can be content with that."

"I don't suppose your parents will be too keen about this. Especially your mother."

"No, maybe not. But you know how she is. She'll quietly stew on it a bit, and then she'll be done. I think in the end she wants us to be happy. I know that's what I'd want for us if I were her."

A funny, spirally feeling had started to wind its way inside me as my parents talked to each other. Papa and Mama were talking about moving to the city to live with Uncle Fred, a man I had only met once. He came out to Quakertown when Granny died. Not Mama's mama, Papa's. When I was eight.

Papa had said, "Are you sure now? Are you sure this is what you want to do?"

"It's what you want to do, isn't it?" Mama replied.

"It will mean a good life for you and the girls. A much better life than what I'm giving you here."

"You've given us a good life, Tom," Mama said.

"I want to give you a better one."

Then Papa said he needed to tell Grandad and break the news to the family and they'd need to sell the house. They talked for a few more minutes, but I wasn't listening to everything they said. I was thinking about leaving my friends and the other family members and the curing barn. I couldn't remember what Uncle Fred's business was, but I was positive it wasn't growing tobacco and rolling cigars. Not in the city. It was so strange to me that my parents could just decide we were leaving and we'd leave. How could we move away from where we'd buried Henry?

When Mama left, I stood up slowly so that I would see Papa before he saw me. But he was looking my direction and he saw my head clear the laths. I'm not afraid of my father. He doesn't yell or curse or storm about when he's angry, but he can look like he wants to. He's tall like Grandad and has the same coffee brown eyes that glitter like stars both when he's happy and when he's sad. And I guess when he's surprised, too.

"I didn't know you were still in here," he said.

"I know."

"Did you hear everything?"

I nodded.

He gave me a very serious look. "You can't say anything to anybody, not even your sisters, until I talk to Grandad first. You understand?"

"Are we moving to Philadelphia?"

He hesitated a second or two before answering, like he almost couldn't believe it was true himself. "Yes," he said.

"Why? What's wrong with where we live right now?"

Papa moved from his row to mine. "There's nothing wrong with where we live right now. I just have a chance to give you girls a much better home. Better schooling. Better everything. My uncle Fred doesn't have any children. He has no one to leave his home and business to. He wants to leave them to me when he dies. To us. He has a very nice house, Mags. Electric lights in every room. Hot water from the tap."

"And so just like that, we're going?"

"Mama and I've been thinking on it awhile."

"All my friends are here."

"You will make new ones. I promise you will."

"Henry's here." My throat felt hot and thick as I said Henry's name. I looked away from Papa, and in the direction of the cemetery, even though I couldn't see it from inside the curing barn.

Papa put his hands gently on my shoulders so that I would turn my head to face him again. "Henry's in heaven. He's not in the graveyard here-you know that. We're not leaving him; we're taking him with us in our hearts."

I reached up to flick away a couple tears that wanted to trail down my face.

"I need you to promise you won't say anything. Not yet," Papa said.

I didn't answer.

"Maggie, I want your word now."

"I promise," I finally whispered.

"All right, then." He took one hand off my shoulders, but left the other one as he began to lead us toward the big door that led outside. "When I tell your sisters, that's when you'll know it's okay to tell other people. Not until then."

Reading Group Guide

As Bright as Heaven
Susan Meissner
Questions for Discussion

1. What do you think it would be like to live in a city experiencing a pandemic, as Philadelphia did with the flu? Do you think the Bright family made the best choices for their survival? Would you have handled things differently?

2. How do you think the fact that the Brights were living in a funeral home changed their experience of the flu and the way they reacted to it?

3. How would you describe the family dynamics among the Bright sisters and the rest of the family before the flu? How about after? Do the Bright sisters remind you of people you know?

4. How did the Spanish flu pandemic shape the Bright sisters’ adult lives? Did you experience a life-defining event in your childhood? How did it affect you?

5. Would As Bright as Heaven be a dramatically different story if it were from the point of view of only one character instead of four? How?

6. Could you relate to Pauline’s relationship with Death after the loss of her infant son and the move to Philadelphia? Why or why not?

7. Discuss Maggie’s actions on the day she found the baby. How did her choices affect her family? Do you empathize with her decisions?

8. Why do you think Maggie decided to take on Pauline’s work at the funeral home after her mother died? How do you think that work changed her as she grew up?

9. Why do you think Evie chose to become a psychiatrist?

10. What do you think of Evie’s final solution to her dilemma regarding Conrad? What would you have done?

11. Why do you think fourteen-year-old Willa was drawn to the speakeasy?

12. Forgiving Pauline’s parents wasn’t easy for Thomas Bright. Do you think what happened to Pauline was their fault? In your opinion, what is the most difficult part of forgiving someone?

13. Pauline imagined her mother telling her, “The heart always does what it needs to do.” Do you think that is true?

14. The subtle presence of butterflies recurs throughout the book. How many references to them can you recall? What do they signify?

15. Has this novel changed you or your perspective on life and death? Did you learn something new about yourself or the way you think?

Customer Reviews

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As Bright as Heaven 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Books that invite me into a person’s heart and mind (fictional or real) captivate me. Beautifully crafted. I couldn’t put it down. Sometimes I feel like my mind is like a pinball machine with thoughts bouncing around and then emotion seeps into the trails of thought and joy or ache energizes the thoughts whether I want it to or not. Sometimes life seems very random and then a switch is flipped and it seems fate has walked beside you every step of the way. It’s random, patterned and weird! This book spoke to me and I listened, learned and enjoyed every minute of the conversation. Thank you for writing it!
Anonymous 11 months ago
I really don't think that a 4.6 is an accurate rating when most of the people that responded received a free copy from the publisher. Is the publisher going to send us all a free copy???
Holly More than 1 year ago
It took me a while to get to this book but I'm glad I waited for that perfect time to read this book because this book will tear your heart out in those first 200 pages. We start off with Thomas & Pauline Bright having just lost their baby boy, Henry and it was a huge loss to the entire family including the three older girls named Evelyn, Maggie & Willa. It was Pauline's idea to move to Philadelphia for better opportunities for the family and the chance to move on from such tragedy. With the family moving into a family run funeral home with the hopes that Thomas will take over from his uncle one day, they would never have imagined what is in store for everyone. As the Spanish Flu takes hold of the town, tragedy will once again bestow this family in a way that you won't see coming but in the mist of all the death, there will be a baby rescued. It's with this baby that comes a mystery on how it survived and what really happened that day. As with everything, the flu goes away and a town comes back but this family will not be the same ever again until several years has passed and the mystery of where the baby came from will come back in a way that will bring this family even closer together. I don't want to spoil too much of this story for y'all because this was truly a heart-breaking book that had me glued to the pages until that last word was read! Let's just say that those first 200 pages, you would want tissues close by and toward the end of the book as well for what happens to this family after so much tragedy. I have always heard the Spanish Flu but never in the context that this book was written and it kinda makes me want to go read more books about the subject and I very hopefully that history won't repeat itself like that ever again. Thank You to Susan Meissner for this awesome first book that I have read by you but it won't be my last!! I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book from the Publisher!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Part 1 was intense; almost like I was there. Part 2 was too predictable; I felt like it was trying to make up for the harshness of part 1 and that happy ending was necessary.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received a free e-reader copy of this book through the publisher. I fell in love with this author's writing style when I read A Bridge Across the Ocean and she continues to deliver a story with this book that is impossible to put down despite being a completely different setting and time period. I cared so much about the characters and what happens to them in the book. It made my heart soar and cringe as they grow up and evolve. I usually hate when a book skips several years, but in this case, it didn't detract from the story at all. Did you know that the Spanish Flu killed more people than the Black Plague? I certainly didn't, nor did my tween daughter who dressed up like a Black Plague Doctor for Halloween and loves those odd kind of facts. This is a historical fiction account of one family's experiences during the Spanish Flu in Philadelphia.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This historical fiction was well written and make you think about what you would do if you were in those situations. The characters were warm and inviting. Great read!
Nicnac63 More than 1 year ago
This is the type of story that, upon reading the last page, you slowly close the book, close your eyes, sigh and reflect. So many emotions roil through your mind and it takes some thought to allow them to settle. I didn’t know what to expect from As Bright As Heaven. I’ve read other books by Susan Meissner, (Secrets of a Charmed Life is a favorite) so I was confident the author was a gifted storyteller who infuses deep emotion in her work, and I was drawn in by the exquisite cover art. But upon choosing a book to read, I normally only skim over the blurb to avoid learning ‘too much,’ so all I basically knew was the story was set in Philadelphia during the First World War. I’m glad I didn’t know more, because learning each aspect of the multi-faceted story as it happened surprised me, grabbed me, and refused to release me. The storyline is riveting, the storytelling is stunning, and each heartbreaking challenge encountered is delicately wrapped in the hope and strength of the human spirit. The story is presented in two parts, before the First World War and Spanish Flu pandemic (1918-1919) and after (1925.) The narration is voiced from the four riveting first-person points of view; the mother and three daughters of the Bright family—Pauline, Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa. I became attached to each girl. They have distinct voices and views of the world, but I mostly connected and sympathized with Maggie. Perhaps because I’m also a middle sister. Not only was I drawn into the Bright’s story, and pulled into the early 1900s and the hardships and atrocities endured and succumbed to, but I also learned much about the history of the Influenza (Spanish Flu) pandemic—the deadliest disease in history! I also have a better understanding of what it meant to be the wife and daughter of an undertaker during this time period, how widespread the Spanish Flu was distributed, precautions taken (or not,) and how bodies were delivered, prepared, and presented (or not) during the outbreak. The Bright family finds themselves in a new city, new home, and new life after the death of their youngest Bright, only months-old, baby Henry. With death, war, sickness, and heartbreak around every corner, will they have the strength and desire to do more than exist in the new world they’ve been propelled into? Without giving you more of a description or breakdown of the story, I can tell you that you will learn a lot. You will most likely shed some tears, and find yourself in the circle of life and death, sadness and hope, heartbreak and healing. You might even wonder why you’re willingly putting yourself through such a host of emotions. But upon completion of the book, I doubt you’ll be able to forget a single member of the Bright family. And I’m also confident that you’ll be forever changed. Yes. It’s that powerful. As Bright As Heaven is much more than a story. It is a powerful, riveting, unforgettable experience. I received a complimentary copy of this book via BookPleasures.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings It is 1918 Philadelphia and this family moves from the country to the city for an opportunity that could change their life greatly for the better. They will become the local undertaker and operate and live in a funeral home. With three daughters and a recently deceased baby son, this family is in need of a change of scenery. One of the things that made me adore this book was that all three sisters and the mother narrated this book. Divided in small chapters, even the youngest was given an opportunity to tell the story from her point of view. I love when there are multiple narrators, but taking it to the next level and giving space to a young child was just fun.
witkneey01 More than 1 year ago
Once it begins, I never wanted it to end! And even after the book was over I wanted more… more of their lives, more of their stories, more of their hardships, more of their heartbreaks. This is not my first Susan Meissner novel, nor will it be my last. She has quickly become an author that every title she has written has been added to my TBR. I loved that while set in a time period that is often written about, I have never read a book that explored the Spanish Flu. And while the Flu was central to the story, it was more about the characters and how their lives were changed and affected. Hands down a wonderful read with engaging characters. They were flawed, they had heart, they had me invested in their stories equally. Thank you for the opportunity to read this book!
CaitlinAllen More than 1 year ago
Thank you to Berkley Publishing for the free review copy of this book. All opinions are my own. From the first page, I was drawn into this novel because of the immense amount of detail used. Meissner wonderfully showed the scenes and made it so easy to relate to the characters. I felt like I was in the Bright family while reading this novel, which always means the author did a fantastic job with it. During this novel, I could feel the emotions of the characters. I was experiencing their pain, joy, trauma, and love right along with them. I like how each main woman in this novel gets their own chapters. It made it so they all could be complexly developed that led to wanting to read more about each of the women. I was engrossed in each story and found that by highlighting each woman that their issues were able to be explored more deeply. I really enjoyed how Meissner wrote about a time in history that isn't in a lot of novels I read. It helped me get out of my comfort zone. It was different from my normal historical fiction, which is what made it so enjoyable.
Dana Blazsek More than 1 year ago
All the stars for this book that I could not put down and read in a day. Meissner tells us a heart wrenching story of the Brights who have moved to Philadelphia with the hope of a better life. What they get is heartbreak from the war overseas and the horrible influenza plague that has hit the city. • Wonderfully written and a family who is 100% unforgettable, Meissner takes us on a feel all the feels ride. Each Bright daughter has their own story that made me unable to stop reading. Each Bright girl made me smile. Each Bright girl made me cry. Each Bright girl will be read by many because I will recommend this book to anyone who will listen.
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
I laughed and I cried through this novel, the Bright family though, had to endure it all while I sat back and just watched, my emotions getting the best of me. The year was 1918 and this family was embarking on change. Having moved from Quakertown, they were now moving to the city, the city of Philadelphia where father would be one day taking over a family business. No more rolling tobacco and cigars, the family was going into the mortuary business. Mother wanted to be a part of this venture and originally, Uncle Fred confined her to the attached house. Mother and the children had no business being in the funeral home unless it was to help set up for services. Mother questioned why they were paying staff when she herself, could do their job and eventually Uncle Fred compromised. Mother was such a determined and caring individual. The war takes it toll on the city, first as it recruits and then as fatalities takes its citizens. It never ends as the Spanish Flu begins its tour and no one is immune from day one. Hitting the military and then the states, everyone is scared yet for the Bright Funeral Home, this is business. A business that has to start turning individuals away as they cannot keep up with the bodies that require their care. The family fears for their own safety yet where can they go to be “safe.” I hadn’t thought much about what life would be like living inside or working inside a funeral home until reading this novel. It all seems so peaceful but this is the result of many hours of demanding and hard work. The physical work is only a fraction of it. The emotional aspect of the job is what would separate many individuals from this line of work. An orphaned baby brings hope to the family yet inside, I felt there was something wrong about this whole situation. This child provided sunshine finally to the family yet soon darkness fell over the household. My tears fell freely and rapidly as I read as life changed within the funeral home. Everyone has been affected by the war and/or by the Spanish Flu, it amazed me how much devastation has occurred. Business is starting to slow down finally and the new normal is beginning to show its face. I was not ready to let go of this family and their lives in Philadelphia as the novel started to wind down. Their story was one that I really enjoyed. Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for sending me a copy of this novel to review in exchange for an honest review.
Darcy714 More than 1 year ago
Reminiscent of Little Women, Poignant and Hopeful Pauline Bright has just lost her son, and is in need of a change. When her husband’s uncle offers to let him become a partner in his funeral business, she jumps at the chance to leave their small town and transplant her three girls to Philadelphia with its distracting bustle. But moving to above a funeral parlor does not provide the distance to death she had hoped and soon after, her husband is drafted. Life is muted and the loss of lives due to the war is ever present in Evelyn, Maggie, Willa and Pauline’s minds when suddenly a more pressing threat closer to home emerges, the Spanish flu. Attacking the healthy instead of the old or very young, the flu rips through the city, robbing every household and making the funeral business balloon out of control with excess bodies. One day, while accompanying Pauline to bring food to the sick, Maggie finds a young baby, his mother dead from the flu and when no one reports looking for him, the Bright sisters and Pauline elect to keep him. As the flu continues to take from everyone around them, this baby gives them all a purpose to hold to in an increasingly upturned world. Susan Meissner’s work, As Bright as Heaven, is heartbreakingly poignant, presenting a single ray of hope in the midst of War and sickness that crystallizes and refracts from within the Bright household. Told from the points of view of the three sisters and their mother, Pauline, the bond between the women through tragedy is reminiscent of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, but set forward 50 years. Meissner deals with a lesser known area of history in the Spanish flu despite its devastating death toll. A beautiful tale of hope and loss, family and love. Disclaimer, I received an ARC of this book from Berkley Penguin Random House through Bookish First in Exchange for an honest review.
nyauthoress More than 1 year ago
As Bright As Heaven, set in Philadelphia during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, is a dramatic example of the resilience of the human spirit. Heartening and dramatic, the book releases February 2018 from Berkley Penguin Random House. As Bright As Heaven opens with a flash forward scene set in 1918. Pauline Bright stands over the grave where a child has been laid to rest. She falls into reverie about the child’s birth. With that, the story of how she and her husband Thomas came to relocate from a poor tobacco farm to Philadelphia quietly and powerfully reveals itself. The shroud of the Spanish flu epidemic is about to cover the city and the Bright family will be fiercely tested and impacted. Clouds of love and compassion enfold the gravitas of their circumstances. Meissner excels at her craft. Her writing astounds in prose and plot. The tenacity of the human spirit is a signature of her novels. Written with exquisite prose and articulate historical detail, her prose wafts over the reader, pages clipping by like lightning. As Bright As Heaven brims with unforeseen awakenings in the midst of loss. Narrated by various family members, the tension mounts as each reveal their experiences during the plague and experience emotional epiphanies. Characters are fully realized with distinctive personalities. We become completely absorbed into the lives, losses, and triumphs of the Bright family. Meissner includes detail on embalming a dead body, an absorbing side trip. See if you can figure out the surprise ending before you read it. Complex in depth with a sweet aftertaste, As Bright As Heaven is highly recommended. I thank Penguin Random House and Bookish First for the advance reader’s copy.
meigan More than 1 year ago
As Bright as Heaven is a story of love and loss and tragedy, but most importantly - hope. 1918 - the Bright family has relocated to Philadelphia from Allentown, PA, to live with Mr. Bright’s uncle and take over the family’s funeral business. Brimming with optimism in the face of such newfound prosperity, the Brights settle in and quickly adapt to their new lives and routines. But their routines and that new feeling of comfort is short-lived as the Great War is just beginning, the drafts have started, and Mr. Bright along with several beloved friends and neighbors are called to serve. On the heels of this tragedy, the Brights and the world at large are in the crosshairs of a new and invisible enemy - the Spanish Flu. As soon as I saw “Spanish flu”, this was a book I definitely wanted to get my hands on. Hailed as the one of the worst epidemics in human history, the Spanish flu of 1918 killed an estimated 50-100 million people in countries all over the world. An unimaginable and unfathomable tragedy, and Meissner deftly weaves in historically accurate details, making this fictional tale feel a bit more realistic. As Bright as Heaven is a story heavily laden with loss and tragedy and heartbreak, but it also showcases the strength and the resilience of the human spirit. The characters in this book have all been touched by death and their ability and sheer desire to endure in the face of such suffering was definitely a bright spot in this otherwise bleak and heart-wrenching tale. Highly recommended, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to discovering other books by this author. *I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads giveaways.
Jenea Whittington More than 1 year ago
As Bright as Heaven takes us through the journey of one families struggles and the little bits of joy during a terrible time. The Bright Family lived a simple life, but looking toward the future, they pack up their children and move to Philadelphia. Much bigger and better things are supposed to happen for them when they get there. The Great War is being fought and soon their father is called for duty, leaving them there to care of things without him. The Spanish Flu is going around, and taking people quickly. But these Bright women, young or adult, step up and do what is needed to be done. This is told in alternating POV’s from Pauline, Evelyn, Maggie and Willa. Sometimes with multiple POV’s it can be a little overwhelming and confusing, but that is certainly not the case here. Pauline and her daughters have their own distinct personalities and traits that distinguish them from each other. From chapter to chapter the story is giving a little at a time, just through different eyes. I did’t know much about some of the events that took place during this particular war or the Spanish Flu. So they way this was told, was a wonderful way to see it all. We see each of their feelings and thoughts, through the events that occurred, it was raw and emotional. I felt their joy, their fear and the losses, and it just heart broke over and over. Pauline and her girls were so amazing and strong, and the sheer determination they each had was something that will stick with you. There were times that each of these women made some decisions that weren’t the best, but they did what they needed to do to survive. And their hearts were always in the right place and the lessons they learned were harsh to say the least, because the horrific and tragic events they endured was palpable. I adored each and every one of them. This family might have lost so much along the way, but in some ways they gained even more. Even through all the devastation, the resiliency, love and loyalty comes through every page. As Bright as Heaven delivers a breathtaking story of strength, grief, love and learning live each day to the fullest. I simply can not say enough about this, it is certainly one that will stay with me, it was beautifully written and I was enthralled from the first page. I would recommend this to anyone that will listen, pick it up.
nhr3bookcrazyNR More than 1 year ago
A very different story - with an unusual setting (a funeral home) set during the time of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. I loved the way the story flowed - with chapters going from one sister to the other. I really loved that this story was so unique.
CoffeeAndAStory More than 1 year ago
"It's as if the body is a candle and the soul is its flame. When the flame is snuffed out, all that is left to prove that there had been a flame is the candle, and even that we only have for a little while. Even the candle is not ours to keep. And yet how we care for that candle for that stretch of time that it is still ours! How we want to remember the shape and fragrance of the little flame it held." - "This flu is like a black shroud that has been flung across everything that breathes under the canopy of heaven, and if you could stand back far enough you wouldn't see all the people it touches, only the immense length and breadth of its expanse." - I could keep posting quote after quote from this beautifully-written novel. I counted and I highlighted 25 quotes from this book. The concept of a family running an undertaking business during the greatest epidemic the world has ever seen was a subject I was excited to read about. They lived in Philadelphia, which of all the cities in the United States, was probably hit the hardest. I read the book The Great Influenza by John M. Barry last year and the author mentioned she read that book as research for this one. I think it would be a great companion read to this to better understand the impact the flu had. The first third of this book goes slowly, and I almost stopped reading, but I'm glad I didn't. The author spent time developing the characters and it really shows. Maggie was definitely my favorite character, but I also liked Pauline and cute little Willa. There was a plot point that was very predictable to me, but that didn't take away from the story too much. The strengths of this book were the characters and their awareness of how death brings a new understanding and appreciation of humanity. I wish I had been able to read this book years ago when I lost someone very dear to me. Its messages would have brought comfort to my heart trying to make sense of grief and loss. You will need tissues while reading this book, but the ending is a good one, I promise. I gave this book four stars out of five. Graceful, poignant, and meaningful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
1918 When Pauline Bright gave birth to baby Henry after having three girls, Evie, Maggie, and Willa, the family was thrilled. But, sadly his little heart was not strong enough to keep him alive. Shortly after he passed away, the family moved to Philadelphia where Pauline’s husband, Thomas, would work with his Uncle Fred who owned Bright Funeral Home. The family finds their new home to be quite large, modern, and well-furnished. Uncle Fred tells them that they will live upstairs over the funeral parlor and that Pauline and the girls are not allowed in the business area of the house. Pauline resents this because she is ready and willing to help in the business. Eventually, she is allowed to help with fixing the makeup and hair of the recently deceased. As the family settles in, the war becomes a reality and all able-bodied men age 46 and under are eligible to fight. Thomas decides to join up and serve in the medical field. Not long afterward, the Spanish flu hits the area with a vengeance shutting down schools, shops, and even the streetcars. The flu is very contagious and people are dying in huge numbers. Before it is over, millions of people worldwide will have died. Illness strikes the Bright family and grief follows. When Maggie finds a baby clinging to life in a home where the other family members appear to have perished from the flu, she brings him home and the family adopts him. They name him Alex and feel that God has sent him to them to make up for the loss of baby Henry. This story follows each of the daughters as they adjust to their new home, make new friends, and learn about the funeral business. We see heartbreak but their close knit family helps them through many tragedies. I found this book to be fascinating. The author takes us through an important time in history and brings it to life for the reader. I loved her book, “A Bridge Across the Ocean” and have been eagerly looking forward to reading this one. Congratulations to a very talented author.
FeatheredQuillBookReviews More than 1 year ago
The year is 1918 and the place is Philadelphia. Susan Meissner delivers a compelling and bittersweet story in her latest novel, As Bright as Heaven. Thomas and Pauline Bright wanted nothing more than to give their three girls, Evelyn, Maggie and Willa a better life. After the tragic loss of their sweet baby boy, Henry, it was time for a new beginning. It was time to leave the tobacco farms of Quakertown behind and look toward the new future Fred, Thomas’ brother was offering. It would be a different life for the girls—trading tobacco curing barns for undertaking. Fred Bright has a successful burial business in Philadelphia and wants to turn it all over to his brother Thomas. Even though her beloved child Henry has died, Pauline resists the notion of moving. However, the more intimate she becomes with the notion of death and the unrelenting hold loss has on her, Pauline realizes she will never be able to bring Henry back. There is nothing left holding her to Quakertown other than her parents and extended family. It is not enough, and she has a revelation that it is time to put the sorrow behind her and focus on the beautiful children she has who are still alive and provide a future for them. The girls have their own reservations. Evelyn (Evie) being the oldest is their logical child. She must maintain a stiff upper lip and convince her younger siblings that life in Philadelphia will be grand. Maggie, on the other hand, is the free spirit. She sees life in a different light and cannot seem to grasp the concept of a better life than the one she already has. Aside from the loss of dear Henry, she believes things will get better. Willa, the baby, simply wants what all youngest siblings want: center stage and constant attention. Initially, the move from the rural likes of Quakertown to the city streets of Philadelphia are more than foreign and overwhelming. Uncle Fred, Thomas’ brother, never having married has strict designs on what a woman’s place is in the home and far be it for him to acquiesce even a notion of Pauline or the girls ever setting foot in the embalming salon. Time moves forward, and the Great War persists across the sea. When the epic pandemic of the Spanish Flu hits the city streets of Philadelphia and the surrounding communities, the Bright family is about to face greater challenges in their day-to-day battle with survival as their constant reminder of the unknown in the days that lie ahead. I was instantly captivated with this story. Ms. Meissner set the realities to paper of the pandemic tragedy of the Spanish Flu and assigned the horrors of the havoc it reaped on all its victims. The historical infusion she wove in and around the characters she created was fascinating. This may be a work of historical fiction, but her documentation of what happened to entire communities because of this illness breathed intense credibility throughout this story. It is difficult to fathom the period in this novel is a mere 100 years ago; yet, Ms. Meissner has a wonderful ability to impart several layers of varied emotion for her audience to revel in with the turn of each page. My only regret in reading this novel is that point when I arrived at the last page. A true master of her art, she ties the entire story up into a neat bow at story’s end; leaving her audience with the anticipation of her next novel. Well done Ms. Meissner! I look forward to your next book.
lostinmegalpolis More than 1 year ago
To be honest, I'm not sure if this book knew what it wanted to be, which might sound strange. As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner focuses on the tragedies during and after the 1918 Flu Pandemic in Philadelphia. This honestly sounds perfect to me. As somebody who lives in Philly and also works in museums on such a topic, I could not wait to read this book. Also, it follows the lives of three sisters, and a mother. All told from their perspectives. The first half of the book was addicting as it crafts this delicate world during WWI. The family moves to Philadelphia to work in a funeral home. Then the flu strikes. Yet that was not even the most interesting part. Nonetheless, I could not wait to find out what happened next only to find out the book kept going on and on into the 1920s. There were a handful of surprising plot elements that I guess added intrigue to the situation. I personally felt like it took away from the tragedy of the Spanish Flu, but that may be me. I would still recommend this book especially if you are interested in the early 20th Century, we rarely have books that delve into such a time, that allow us to immerse ourselves into such lives.
RaeOH More than 1 year ago
A Wonderful Read! First of all, thank you to BookishFirst and @berkleypub for the advanced copy I won. I was anxious to read this one as soon as I read a little piece of it. This story takes place in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. Not something I knew much about but Susan Meissner made you feel like you were there. Her descriptions made you see it and when out in my daily life, when I heard coughing I flinched as I was living this book. This is a story of hope, love and surviving tragedy. You first meet the Bright family as they suffer a tragic loss and decide to go live with an uncle in the city. The dad is to learn the undertaking trade. The three daughters aren't so sure about this but they adjust along with mom and life starts OK until the flu hits. You can picture how awful it was and what everyone endured. The story does move on from there and they adjust to live again and to loving. One of the parts that stayed with me is a reference to how we are like butterflies and on earth for only a brilliant moment. I loved that sentiment. Look this book up and give it a read. You will be touched.
mrs2a50 More than 1 year ago
Another great Meissner story! First, I am such a fan of Meissner's writing, and her innate ability to transport the reader to another place and time - key to a great historical fiction book. You feel like you are experiencing everything right along with the characters. Her other talent is to entertain AND teach - her books that I've read have been just as educational as they are enjoyable to read. She does her research, and it shows in her stories. I feel like I'm learning so much! Specifically on this book, it's the story of a family and their experience with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. But that's far too simple. It's also about love, loss, grief, family, hope, resilience. The characters are amazing - I loved their individual personalities and how those were revealed as the storyline developed. The alternating chapter voices worked so well here! As usual with Meissner, the four women are authentic and real. They deal with tragedy and loss and witness so much suffering, but work through it to regain their lives and find happiness. There's a lot of emotion (bring your tissues). Truly a fantastic read!
CharlotteLynnsReviews More than 1 year ago
The Spanish Flu? I had heard of it but never read a book centered around it. I’ve read books set in the WWI era but most of them centered on the war. While this book did include the war and how it was affecting the United States this was not a war book. The family, the Bright Family, is amazing. I love this family. The dynamic between husband and wife is so sweet and true that you could feel their love coming right off the pages. Add in the children and you know that there will never be more love in a family. These parents will do anything to keep their family safe, loved, and together. I really liked that each character was able to tell their story in alternating chapters. As a reader I read each chapter loving that I could learn more about the characters personally, learn their thoughts, their feelings, and what they truly were like. I recommend picking up your own copy and enjoying this wonderful family, learn their secrets, and watch them grow together.
CharlotteLynnsReviews More than 1 year ago
The Spanish Flu? I had heard of it but never read a book centered around it. I’ve read books set in the WWI era but most of them centered on the war. While this book did include the war and how it was affecting the United States this was not a war book. The family, the Bright Family, is amazing. I love this family. The dynamic between husband and wife is so sweet and true that you could feel their love coming right off the pages. Add in the children and you know that there will never be more love in a family. These parents will do anything to keep their family safe, loved, and together. I really liked that each character was able to tell their story in alternating chapters. As a reader I read each chapter loving that I could learn more about the characters personally, learn their thoughts, their feelings, and what they truly were like. I recommend picking up your own copy and enjoying this wonderful family, learn their secrets, and watch them grow together.