How does an author follow up one of the most phenomenal bestsellers in recent publishing history? That was the dilemma facing Mitch Albom after his last book, Tuesdays with Morrie, perched itself atop the New York Times bestseller list and refused to leave the party until six million copies were sold.
Albom, who apparently possesses 30 hours per day in which to write a column for the Detroit Free Press and host a radio show when he's not writing, has chosen to follow up his blockbuster with a sweetly rendered parable that in tone and message echoes its big brother.
In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, octogenarian Eddie dies during a freak carnival ride accident. Just as Ebenezer Scrooge took a fateful Christmas Eve glimpse into his past, present and future, Eddie gets a similar guided tour through his own life. But while the icy Scrooge is offered a chance at redemption, it's clear from the get-go that Eddie is, in fact, dead. His job now is to meet the five spirits waiting to help him make peace with his time on Earth.
In Albom's vision of heaven, the newly dead connect with spirits who help them make the transition to the afterlife. Most people would expect to meet long-lost friends or relatives, but in Albom's view, it is strangers who can best enlighten us.
Through his encounters, Eddie comes to accept the atrocities he witnessed as a soldier, which cast a shadow over the rest of his life. In the book's most affecting moment, Eddie also sees that his decades as a lowly maintenance worker served a nobler purpose than he ever imagined.
There's a fine line between poignant and maudlin, and Albom teeters on that ledge at points. But his power as a writer allows him to pull back, keeping his worthy message intact. Albom is unafraid of tackling the big questions, and in this effort he plunges into perhaps the biggest of them all: Why are we here? Trust Albom to offer a plausible answer.
Amy Scribner is a writer in Washington, D.C.