When I read the first page of this book, I actually had to stop and take deep breaths. It was memorizing. A woman just misses getting to her phone before the answering machine clicks in...
"Ach, this thing," she mumbled. She heard the machine click on her kitchen counter as it played her outgoing message.
"Hi, it's Tess. Leave your name and your number. I'll get back to you as soon as I can, thanks."
A small beep sounded. Tess heard static. And then.
"It's Mom... I need to tell you something."
Tess stopped breathing. The receiver fell from her fingers.
Her mother died four years ago.
Now, that is what I call a first page. I was hooked. This is Mitch Albom's sixth book, including Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I had high expectations, based on these previous works but the opening lines were promising.
Coldwater, Lake Michigan is a sleepy town, close to the Canadian border, and like many rural communities, is struggling in these difficult times. Shops have closed down, unemployment is heavy and the morale is at an all-time low. Things take a dramatic turn when many of the residents of Coldwater start receiving phone calls from their loved ones who have passed away. The calls are intimate, heart wrenching and full of spiritual hope. The town is bustling again as people travel far and wide in the hope of contacting their own lost ones. Business is booming again and the churches are packed to the rafters. One man who has mixed feelings about these calls, and their effects, is Sully Harding. Having lost his wife in a tragic accident, he already carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. His disbelief in these phone calls from heaven causes friction from some of the locals, especially his own young son. He is determined to find out, once and for all, if there is a direct line, from the supposed next world, to the one he is living in...
Mitch Albom has a way with words. Simple, yet unique. His gentle approach, to a delicate subject, is what makes this novel a success. The urge to overplay narrative could have been a temptation to a less experienced writer, but as a former journalist, screen writer and playwright, this author seemed to know when to reel it in. The characters are wonderfully individual, each with their own story to tell.
Grief can be difficult to address is fiction and often the atmosphere can be oppressive. Not so with this novel. It has a nice and steady pace, with the story twisting from Tess and other phone call recipients, to Sully, journalist Amy, Ministers, Priest and local council officials. While there are many characters dotted through the story, the reader is not confused as they are all interlinked in one way or another. Another feat that only a good writer can achieve.
There was just a little bit too much predictability for my liking, though. Sully was the typical widower. Damaged but distressed, drinking heavily but still a dependable father, dishevelled yet attractive. I'm not sure, considering what had happened to himself and his wife (no spoilers), he would have been as reliable an employee, son or father that he seems to be in this novel. Similarly, TV reporter, Amy, is saccharine sweet and comes across as an unlikely character. That said, the narrative is clever, the whole idea of a direct link with the deceased being something that enters many minds, and the magical writing of Albom makes it seem less fantasy and more of a tale of inspiration. A clever book, short in length but strong on ideas...
The First Phone Call from Heaven is published by Sphere and is available in paperback and ebook format