As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner, Review by Corinne Donnelly
In a year when the flu hit the US much harder than usual, Susan Meissner’s As Bright as Heaven, set during the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, sparks heightened interest. Following the death of an infant son, the Bright family moves to Philadelphia to aid an elderly uncle with his funeral business. As the flu strikes with a vengeance, the Brights struggle to balance helping those in need and keeping their own family safe and healthy. While categorized as historical fiction, the novel reads more like a melodrama with shallow characters making irresponsible and irrational decisions in exaggerated situations.
Pauline, the matriarch of the family, and her three daughters, Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa, narrate alternating chapters in the first person perspective. While the four women are easy to differentiate due in part to age and personality differences, the characterization appears lazy and superficial. Once Pauline is established as the mother, that’s all she is. Evelyn never moves beyond her label as the “intellectual,” while Willa, despite a significant leap in time halfway through the novel, is always the needy and selfish baby of the family. Maggie, the middle child and the character with the most substance, eventually loses her charm as she becomes consumed by her obsession with a young man. Poorly fleshed out characters lead to apathy and boredom.
The novel is separated into two parts, with the first half taking place pre- and post- flu, and the second half jumping ahead seven years to an older, allegedly wiser, family who have rooted themselves in the Philadelphia community. The three daughters have budding careers, but their personalities and decision-making abilities remain static. They do not learn from or even acknowledge the mistakes they made in the past. The tone shift between the two parts is also jarring. It is difficult to jump back and forth between profound tragedies and trivial matters. Whether it be a byproduct of so many different perspectives or not, it does not do the novel any favors, and comes across as insensitive.
Historical events take a backseat to the everyday lives of the Bright family. Meissner could have placed her characters in any time period and the essence of the novel would not have been affected. Readers who picked it up specifically to read about the Spanish flu will most likely leave disappointed, as it only directly appears in the middle of the novel, causes paranoia and death, and then promptly disappears throughout the last half. The Great War does play a small role, as well as Prohibition, but they are both glossed over quickly and without deep reflection.
As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner tries and fails to present a moving glimpse into the lives of a family intimate with death during the largest flu pandemic in modern history. Superficial characters, inane plot threads with laughable resolutions, and a lack of delicacy surrounding sensitive topics left me perplexed and disappointed. If you’re in the mood for tragedy dripping with drama, you may leave satisfied, but I still highly doubt it.