When we die, we meet five people whom we might have known in life. They give us a tour of different places where we might have encountered or met them. And then, they explain to us five different memories of our lives and aid us to have our questions answered – why we lived and what we lived for. This is the fictional frame where Mitch Ablom paints the story of Eddie, an 83-year old circus maintenance man, who died in a freak accident when a cable snapped in a carnival ride called Freddy’s Free Fall, and a cart fell on Eddie as he tried to save a girl from it. More details here.
I have to admit when I read about the initial success of this book, I scoffed at it (and wrongly so) as an artistic flop. Ever since I read Da Vinci Code, I vowed never to believe that those books in the New York Times bestseller list are worth my while. But my personal encounters with the metaphysical world have got me itching to read this book for weeks, until one day, with a prospect of another business trip to Cagayan de Oro City, which left me with plenty of reading time, I decided to suspend all artistic judgment on this book, and plunge on it regardless of my past disappointments.
And this time, I was not disappointed. I have always thought of heaven myself as a place where things get explained to us about this life. Reading about Eddie and his five people brings me back memories of people I know who have died when I was too young or too busy to understand their stories. There are days, for instance, that I wished I could have coffee with my late grandfather in Starbucks, and talk about life issues and how he handled them in his time. Had he lived through this day, my grandfather, I’m sure, would have been a Starbucks regular himself. Sadly, it is not possible now, and those conversations will not happen in this life. But Five People consoles me with the thought that maybe, in the next life, that conversation over Starbucks coffee might take place. And with Five People, I could almost imagine how my encounters in heaven might be when my time comes with other friends and relatives that I have already lost.
Of course with this metaphysical premise, Five People might bring tears and wax sentimental in certain places. But never mind that. True and good literature is expected to do that once in a while. Besides, Mitch Albom’s goals are high or should I say, heavy on the sentiment, but he handles it pretty well, carefully treading on the narrow path between artistic detachment and emotion, which prevents it from being a Danielle Steele melodrama that would have caused me to throw it straight to the trash can. Indeed, Mitch Albom manages pretty well, so I'm marking this book "for keeps".
My professor on the modern novel once said in class that all artistic merits being equal, what makes a book outstanding is its vision. And this is why she said Faulkner stands taller than Hemingway. Faulkner had a vision of order and hope, while Hemingway’s vision is of stoic darkness. While Mitch Albom is not in the league of these late giants of modern literature, surely the Five People You Meet in Heaven, with its vision of hope, stands proud out there with the best that modern fiction has to offer.