I’m trying to think of a love song that I like. I know it’s cool right now to like some love songs in an ironic way, pumping your fist in the air and shouting “Yes!” when something by Journey plays on the bar jukebox. (Could that trend please run its course by the way? Journey, like most things, was much cooler — or, at least, a notch above hellacious — when everyone wasn’t shoving down your throat how post-ironically “cool” they are now.) But I can’t even think of a single, straightforward, sentimental love song — one without a minor chord progression or melancholy lyric — that I really enjoy.
So, although I didn’t know what to expect, I wasn’t optimistic about reading Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I had heard from various sources that he was sappy and sentimental, two characteristics I don’t normally respond to, whether in music or literature, without cringing. Granted, many of these opinions were voiced by fellow fiction writing majors at Columbia College, where it was normal to despise any popular literature, even if you hadn’t read it. So I was surprised when, halfway through his novel, I was thoroughly enjoying Albom’s story.
It doesn’t give anything away to say the five people you meet in heaven are actually the five people Eddie, our protagonist, meets in heaven. Albom starts at the end of Eddie’s life and works both forward and backwards. He explores what happens to Eddie after he dies in a freak amusement park accident and flashes back to various stages in Eddie’s life, beginning with his birth and using subsequent birthdays along the way to anchor the pivotal moments in his life.
Of course, the five people — each of whom had influenced Eddie’s life while they were alive — all have something to teach Eddie. A cynic might find these lessons cloying or even preachy, but you know what? I bought it. I fully believed that these people would exist in real life and that their lessons, while maybe not completely original, are worthwhile.
While Eddie could just have been the cantankerous old man stereotype, Albom layers him with shades of vulnerability, naiveté, joy, pain and pride. Even the coldest cynic would appreciate the sweet highs and stifling lows of Eddie’s life-long romance with his wife, Marguerite.
I once heard a psychiatrist explain that a troubled, unsatisfying relationship between a man and his father is part of the “male psyche.” That is, it’s a given that all men, regardless of race or class, have to deal with. Albom carefully explores both sides of the rocky relationship between Eddie and his father, revealing the bitterness, petty grudges and mutual failed expectations that so often form the unspoken pain men carry against their fathers or sons for decades.
My opinion might be biased since I could relate so easily to Eddie’s problems, from his resentful attitude towards his father to his inner regrets about life choices. Maybe I overestimated Albom’s story-telling finesse? I don’t think that’s the case due to my eye-rolling after reading this:
Love, like rain, can nourish from above, drenching couples with a soaking joy. But sometimes, under the angry heat of life, love dries on the surface and must nourish from below, tending to its roots, keeping itself alive.”
Excuse me? Love is like rain? Did he really write that? And, okay, if he came up with something like that on his first draft, then fine, but to keep it in the final copy? This is worse than high school poetry.
In the next paragraph, just in case I didn’t quite get the picture, Albom describes tension between Eddie and his wife by explaining that “the water of their love was hidden beneath the roots.” If anyone ever told me that the water of my love was hidden beneath my roots I would punch him in the face. Next thing I know, he’s going to tell me to water my spiritual garden so the rainbow of my soul can shine on the dew-drop that is life.
There’s more of that, too, by the way; I just don’t have the heart to force any more of it on to you. This is the problem that I have, both with sentimental literature and sentimental love songs: if the feelings they’re addressing are so precious, fleeting and unique as to justify a whole book or song, then any little inauthentic detail punctures my focus and before I know it, I’m on the floor laughing.
Luckily, I took a few deep breaths and opened up the book again. Despite some lazy writing, there is a well-earned sweetness to Albom’s story, a compliment I don’t normally dole out. While beginning in the present day, Albom’s tale feels both old-fashioned and timeless. This is a book you pass down to your children.
Unless they like Journey. Then you’re too late.