Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: THE FIRST PHONE CALL FROM HEAVEN

Title: The First Phone Call From Heaven
Author: Mitch Albom
Publisher: Harper
Pages: 323









The book is called The First Phone Call from Heaven, but it is actually about a number of first calls that are received by some ‘chosen’ residents of Coldwater, a small town located a few miles from Lake Michigan, and how those calls completely alter the dynamics of life in the town.



Tess Rafferty receives a phone call from her mom who died four years ago.

Police chief Jack Sellers gets a call from Robbie, his soldier son who died on duty.

Pastor Warren cannot believe it when one of his congregants, real estate agent Katherine Yellin, tells him that she has received a call from Diane, her dead sister.

All three of them are touched by the calls, but not all are ready to speak of the miracle.

Meanwhile, convict Sullivan Harding, just released from prison after serving time for a crime he did not commit, is received outside prison by his seven-year-old son Jules and his parents.

By the third week, Katherine cannot keep her secret. She feels compelled to tell, and she does so at a church service. Soon there are others who claim to have received calls from the deceased. Most of the people receive calls from deceased loved ones, except for Elias Rowe, who gets a call from a dead disgruntled employee.

TV channel reporter Amy Penn reports the news, and word spreads like wild fire. The response is enormous, gripping the town and the country in a frenzied religious revival of sorts. The mayor decides to optimize on the publicity. At a meeting convened to talk about the issue, several others claim they too have received calls from the deceased. People come from out of town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action, hoping to receive calls from dead family members.

But not everyone is enamoured with the calls. When a terminally ill patient, comforted by Yellin’s words, stops fighting for his life, it results in widespread outrage.

Even as Jules clings to his toy phone, hoping Mommy will call, Sully becomes determined to expose the calls for the hoax they are. Sully knows that dead is dead, that Giselle is never going to make contact.

In the midst of all the confusion, Yellin announces that she will broadcast her call live to the world. As the day of the broadcast draws near, the pace begins to feel intangibly more frenetic.

Are the calls real or a figment of the imagination? Are people lying? How could so many people hallucinate in the same way? Why do the calls come on a Friday? And why would the dead choose a forgotten town like Coldwater to make contact?

Will Sully succeed in exposing the hoax? Or will the world be consumed by a lie?

You need to read the book to find out.



I liked the manner in which Albom connected his fictional tale to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention.

The significance of the telephone as the purveyor of news about ordinary and important events is at the heart of this story. As is the love story of Alexander Graham Bell and his hearing-impaired wife Mabel, and how sound played such a crucial role in their relationship. This love story finds its parallel in that of Sully and his dead wife, Giselle.

For Sully, the investigation into the authenticity of the calls becomes an obsession, a way to calm the demons that haunt him.

I liked the fact that laypeople believed in the ‘miracles’ but the clerics are skeptical and resort to “existential wrestling.” For the media, it is an opportunity to milk the greatest news story.

The writing is beautiful, yet almost deceptive in its simplicity, and at first I could not make up my mind about whether it was a fable or a mystery. 

But the beauty of the words is unmistakable. Albom’s writing is amazing. Every section ends on the right key, with not a single note feeling out of place. Here a paradox, there an emphasis, his words make life- and love-affirming statements, and succeed in resonating with the truth within you.

When Giselle dies, Sully’s feelings are described as “learning of the earth’s destruction while standing on the moon.” I couldn’t get the intensity and the magnitude of that thought out of my mind.

In another instance, Tess cannot believe that she is actually speaking to her deceased mother, “as if death had been an airplane flight that Tess thought Ruth had taken but later found out she’d missed.

There are so many instances of these. When Rowe throws the phone away, hoping to disconnect from the call, he remembers his mother’s words, What the Lord gives you, you do not squander, and yet he throws the phone away, hoping to distance himself from the calls, and feeling guilty all the same, “as if he’d just slammed a door against a rainstorm.”

Albom justifies the device that he has used to hinge his story upon. As Fred Harding, Sully’s dad, says, “The Bible says God spoke through a burning bush…Is that any stranger than a telephone?

Albom has shown the slight yet ever-present rivalries between the Baptist and the Catholic churches, but he has done so with an indulgent eye. The Catholic priest begins a game of one-upmanship on realizing that Tess, a Catholic, got the first call. And Yellin begins to feel jealous when she learns that others too are getting calls.

The story is thoroughly entertaining, interesting and enlightening. The writing is second person, with the omniscient narrator talking directly to us. The style of the author deserves mention. The external all-knowing perspective is understanding, critical, laughing in equal measure.

The multiple viewpoints are confusing at first, but one gets used to them by and by.

Written like a fable this may be, but a fable it is not. There is a lot of philosophy, and a bit of theology, wrapped up in a cloak of mystery.

The book is tinged with sadness. We have all experienced what it means to lose a dear one and we’ve all grieved. The finality of losing a loved one is something no one ever gets over, even though life demands that we move on.

That is why I loved the book so much. At one level, I wished for the miracles to be true. One part of me rooted for Sully, for the hoax to be exposed, and the other part longed for the miracle to be real, so Giselle could call him, and answer a little boy’s prayer.

Personally, I've always believed Heaven is real, regardless of what anyone else might say to the contrary, but it's still deeply satisfying when fiction, or fact, for that matter, re-affirm one's own beliefs.

The cover appealed to me too. The words placed one above the other against the backdrop of a starlit night gave the impression of being a stairway leading to heaven.


Read this book, and see if you can resist longing for one phone call from those you've loved and lost forever.


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