‘First Phone Call’ novel disappoints

Posted February 14, 2014

“The First Phone Call from Heaven: A Novel”
By Mitch Albom


If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, then chances are, you’ve pondered about what it might be like to speak to that person again. Maybe you’ve thought, “what if, the end is not the end and they really are looking over us.” Unrealistically, you’ve probably imagined, that, ‘just maybe, one day my phone will ring and my (insert deceased loved one’s name here) will call me from heaven and tell me that, everything is OK.

As author Mitch Albom says, “losing a loved one is never really starting over. More like continuing without.”

An award winning journalist and best-selling writer, Albom explores the idea of communicating with the dead in his latest novel, “The First Phone Call from Heaven: A Novel.”

Albom has written three novels, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” and “For One More Day,” each of which have been on The New York Times best seller list and turned into successful TV movies.

The setting takes place in the small town of Coldwater Mich., when residents begin receiving phone calls from their deceased loved ones — Tess from her mother, Jack from his son, Katherine from her sister, Elias from a former employee and so on (there are a total of eight residents who receive phone calls, these are just a few).

As news of the phenomenon spreads, the entire town is turned upside down as outsiders gather to determine whether these calls are truly a miracle of God or just a cruel hoax. What starts as an interesting attempt to answer an intriguing life-long philosophical question, “does life after death/or does heaven exist?” slowly progresses into a very prolonged, boring and sadly disappointing one.

Although Albom uses easy to read, short, simple sentences, the novel is no page turner.  He writes, “hearing him again was like patching a hole in his heart, covering it with fresh veins and tissue.” The metaphors are weak, the adjectives aren’t very descriptive; He took this exciting idea and made it uninteresting, even worse … boring. As you begin to grasp one character’s perspective, and your interest starts to peak, Albom switches to another character, and then another, and then another.

For instance, in the first chapter of the book (which is only five pages), Albom introduces four characters — Tess, Jack, Katherine, and Sully — each from their own perspective. Understandably, Albom is trying to build up reader anticipation but, with all the different characters, he loses the effect.

By the time you’ve gotten back to the first characters perspective, you have to remind yourself, “who is this person again?”  Instead of wanting to read more, I found myself annoyed and irritated that I’d stop reading altogether. Had he focused on only three or four characters, switching perspectives would have had a much greater effect.

The three major themes that Albom explores are fear, hope and the idea that the end is not the end.

Albom writes, “fear is how you lose your life, a little bit at a time … what we give to fear, we take back from faith.”

As living beings, we so often find ourselves afraid and for what? We fear being alone, we fear death, we fear the thought of losing someone, heck, we even fear being alive! But with fear comes hope. The hope that one day, we will be reunited with our loved ones, wherever that may be, and so long as we believe, we have something to hold on to.

This idea of communicating with the dead is not something new and, as Albom reminds us, travels all the way back to when Alexander Graham Bell first invented the telephone. Confusing fact with fiction, Albom includes a side story about Bell as a way of tying together his invention of the telephone with the modern day phenomenon in Coldwater.

“Two years before he invented the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell yelled into a dead man’s ear.… Thus, the dead were already part of the telephone, two years before anyone saw one,” writes Albom.

But, because the book is fiction and clearly not based on actual events, it’s hard to distinguish whether the facts about Bell are true or just a play on fact to tie the story together. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem but since Albom explores just about, if not, every single viewpoint from every single Coldwater resident, the relation between these “heavenly phone calls” and the Alexander Bell storyline seem unrelated, even distracting.

If there’s one thing I did like about the novel, it was the comfort I felt when the “dead” would speak to their living loved ones.

“The pain you go through in life doesn’t really touch you … not the real you. Anger, regret, worry, they disappear once you are here … don’t lose yourself inside yourself. These things are all forgiven, please now, forgive yourself,” writes Albom.

Having recently lost my mother, I can easily picture her saying these things to me.

April 1 will mark the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death; so maybe my expectations were a little high. Maybe, I thought, if I read this, somehow my perspective on life will change or I’ll be enlightened in some way. Especially in the beginning, reading the conversations between the living and the “dead,” I felt a sense of comfort; almost as if my mother were saying these things to me herself.

Albom uses a lot of true, positive and inspiring sentences but because he drags on and on, constantly switching perspectives and introducing new characters that by the time you reach the middle of the book you have to stop and make an outline just to keep up with who’s who. And, for whatever reason, as the story progresses, it gradually becomes dry and uninteresting.

After being bored to death, page after page, when the story finally did get interesting, I was so profoundly disappointed that I’ll never pick up another book by this author again. The novel had so much potential to go in a number of different directions but instead was filled with confusing, boring and unsatisfying results.

The focus changes from being about the recipients of these “heavenly phone calls,”  into how the entire town is preparing for a world-wide event that will prove heavens existence. Honestly, I could care less about proving the existence of heaven. I’m more concerned with how the recipients of these phone calls are reacting and what they could possibly be thinking and going through.

Had Albom focused more on speaking with the dead, and the possibility of heaven, this could have been an eye-opening and enlightening story. But because he tried to “prove” the existence of heaven, (which we all know can’t be proved, even in fiction) the book is filled with one disappointment after another.

Certainly the book was intended to bring about hope and comfort, especially to those who have lost someone. However, it had the opposite effect on me. Hoping to be enlightened, I was instead left greatly, utterly, and tremendously disappointed. Instead of being left hopeful to ponder the endless possibilities of heaven, and the after life, I’m left with nothing but dried up tears, an empty box of tissues and sever disappointment.

  • Title: “The First Phone Call from Heaven: A Novel”
  • Author: Mitch Albom
  • ISBN: 978-0-06-229437-1
  • Type: Fiction
  • Publisher and Location: HarperCollins, New York
  • Publication Date: Nov. 12, 2013
  • Availability: Hardcover, Nook book, paperback, audiobook
  • Pages: 326
  • Price: $24.99 hardcover