Generally I am not a huge fan of novels that are overly sentimental so I had been putting off reading Mitch Albom’s clearly sentimental novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. However, after an interesting train-ride, I found myself in the ideal state-of-mind for reading this book and surprised myself by enjoying it, even though it was sentimental.
Albom’s novel begins with Eddie’s end. The count down to Eddie’s death is later mirrored with the small snippets of the days after the accident that claimed the elderly maintenance worker’s life. Eddie doesn’t know what to make of the suddenly deserted carnival pier where he spent his days checking and fixing the rides. He inexplicably feels better than he has in decades but soon learns why from the first of five people he meets as a new arrival in Heaven.
It’s always interesting to see someone else’s ideas of what Heaven will be and I must say, I like the one that Albom envisions. It isn’t so much the pieces of Heaven he constructs, but an idea. Eddie learns that in Heaven, the first stage you go through is a journey to understand your life and that five people guide you to that understanding by answering questions that you never even knew or acknowledged you had. They aren’t necessarily the loved ones you’ve been missing, but they are people who touched your life in a way that you may not even have known.
The story is told in small, easily digestible chunks. Each person Eddie meets has a lesson that must be imparted but only after the reader is granted a portion of Eddie’s history and the role they played in it. While most of these flash backs are closely interwoven with Eddie’s heavenly interactions with these people, a number of them are further set apart by being presented in relation to Eddie’s birthdays over the years.
It was this use of his never-specified birthday as a benchmark for so many of the sadder events of his life that I took the greatest issue with while reading the novel. It’s odd that the least believable part of the book had nothing to do with the depictions of Heaven, but I couldn’t get past the unlikelihood that any day would seemingly attract tragedy the way that Eddie’s birthday appeared to (at least Eddie acknowledges the frustration it causes, if not the oddity of such occurrences to begin with).
Straightforward in its presentation and the after-life lessons its main character needs to learn, The Five People You Meet in Heaven does a good job of walking the line of sentimentality without losing a little lightheartedness necessary for balance. The simple presentation of the novel makes it a quick read and I have to give credit to Albom for drawing the line at five people. With such a premise, it could easily have been overdrawn to the ten or twenty people you meet in Heaven, but Albom wraps things up at exactly the right time for maintaining the reader’s attention and sympathy.
As I mentioned before, this is based on having been in the right mindset for reading this kind of life-affirming tale. A story in which near strangers help explain the mysteries of life might not speak to all readers the same way. I don’t think I would have received it so well if I had put my headphones in and listened to music on the train to meet a friend instead of overhearing a chance reunion between some firefighters and the conductor, a man whose life they helped save several years ago when they responded to a call. Albom’s message is one of lives intersecting and impacting, and after hearing that unlikely story here on Earth, it makes complete sense for there to be at least five people waiting in Heaven whose lives unexpectedly crossed with ours and affected us.