TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Does anyone remember hearing that story a few years back about the two similar looking best friends whom authorities misidentified after one died in a traffic accident? For over a month, everyone — including family members and doctors — thought Whitney Cerak had died and Laura Van Ryn was badly injured and lying in a comatose state. In an absolutely mind-bending case of mistaken identity, Laura's shocked family was told that their daughter had actually died and been buried as Whitney, while Whitney's family learned their seemingly dead daughter was, in fact, alive. Wow, right?
Jacquelyn Mitchard's "All We Know of Heaven" riffs on this true life tale, taking the same concept and applying it, fictionally, to 16 year-old pixie-like best friends Maureen O'Malley and Bridget Flannery. These slight, blonde cheerleaders are gravely injured in a traffic accident on a snowy Minnesota road shortly before Christmas. Since both girls are so horribly battered, doctors and officials wrongly assume that the dead driver of Maureen's car is Maureen while the girl who survived from the passenger seat is Bridget.
The beginning of the novel is stunning. We're listening to the surviving girl's anguished, painfully slow and confused thoughts as she struggles even to find the words to determine whether she is dead or alive. Meanwhile, we experience the O'Malleys' devastation at losing their sweet songbird of a daughter and the Flannerys' cautious hope that their girl will be able to reclaim a life shattered by severe brain trauma. Bridget's mom Kitt, in particular, is a flawlessly rendered depiction of the competing emotions of grief, fear, hope, dread, and anxiety. When Kitt sees just how developmentally challenged the young residents of a rehab facility are, she cannot help but wish that her daughter had died rather than face life as something less than the vibrant, intelligent person she was. Of course, Kitt soon learns that Bridget's death is exactly what has happened. While she is literally lost to guilt and depression, the O'Malleys are reborn with unimaginable and unexpected joy. I cannot remember reading a more compelling first third of a novel. It really is that good.
Unfortunately, the wheels come off rather quickly after this point. Once the girls' true identities are revealed (the living girl's dental records don't match Bridget's), the novel abruptly devolves into an eminently strange combination of campy soap opera, star-crossed teen romance, and earnest after school special-like story of survival. Don't believe me? On your melodrama scorecard, check off Kitt becoming a raging alcoholic and a bit of a lunatic as she destroys a recovered Maureen's shiny new car and attacks Maureen at Bridget's grave site. Also be sure to add in the town's backlash against Maureen when, instead of marveling at her amazing recovery, they inexplicably brand her a heartless slut. (Really.) The ill-fated love occurs between Maureen and Danny, Bridget's boyfriend. The pair are continually challenged, first by their strong feelings toward each other and, later, by parental restrictions — remember, Maureen is now the town pariah! — and distance. Eh. Finally, and perhaps most unbelievably, despite repeated warnings that Maureen will never fully recover, she so does. Right, there's the limp and the occasional reach for an elusive word, but that's about it. Through sheer guts and determination, Maureen astounds everyone by becoming strong, capable, and independent … plus, now she's a musical prodigy! (Again, really.)
I genuinely have a hard time understanding why this book received rave reviews from critics (a 5Q from VOYA?). The strong start cannot possibly forgive the melodramatic nonsense that follows. Still, I'm sure there's an audience of teen girls for this novel, one that will suspend disbelief and buy into the romance and the plot twists and Maureen's remarkable transformation. That's fine. This book just clearly was not for me. If you give "All We Know of a Heaven" a try, I'll point out that it's more of a high school age book. There are references to sex, drugs, and drinking, although none are presented in any great detail. I'd also say it's one geared almost exclusively toward girls, despite Danny playing a central role in the second half of the book. The sweeping romance, and all the anguish and heartache that goes along with it, will turn most boys off.