As Bright As Heaven, by Susan Meissner

You can’t say that the arrival of global pandemic is good news for anyone, but one small side-benefit might accrue to a writer who decided to publish a novel about the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, timing it to be released around the 100th anniversary of that event in 2018. A writer like Susan Meissner couldn’t have guessed that the events of 2020-2021 would reawaken interest in the whole concept of pandemics, and thus in novels about pandemics, but I’m hoping that amid all the hardship Meissner at least pulled in a few new readers for As Bright As Heaven. Deservedly, because it’s a good story about the flu outbreak in Philadelphia in the fall of 1918.

The Bright family — mother, father, and three daughters — moves to Philadephia in the wake of their own tragedy, to live with their uncle and help in his business, which happens to be a funeral parlour. This gives the family a unique perspective from which to view the devastating plague that quickly sweeps through the city, leaving their lives changed forever. Each of the the daughters — Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa — is coming of age as World War One ends and the pandemic hits, and each struggles with her own difficult choices.

Some of the endings to the sisters’ separate storylines were tied up almost too neatly in the story’s denouement, but in general I found this an engaging, highly readable novel about a historic tragedy that hasn’t featured as largely as one might expect it to in historical fiction.

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