In the final year of the Great War, an American family copes with the Spanish flu pandemic.
The Brights, Pauline and Thomas and their daughters, Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa, relocate to better their future. Leaving Thomas’ family tobacco farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, the family moves to Philadelphia, where Thomas’ bachelor uncle, Fred, a mortician, has offered to teach him the undertaker’s trade. Since he has no other heirs, Fred intends, in time, to bequeath his funeral business to the Brights. Pauline and the daughters narrate in turn. At the time of the move, the Brights are still reeling from the death of baby son Henry. Pauline becomes obsessed with death and insinuates herself into the mortuary business to an extent Fred never contemplated. What appears to be a slow-paced and rather morbid tale of domesticity gains momentum when Thomas volunteers to serve in the Army and leaves for basic training. Shortly thereafter, the influenza epidemic grips Philadelphia. As the death toll mounts, Fred’s genteel funeral parlor becomes an auxiliary morgue. When Pauline and Maggie visit the slums on a charitable mission, Maggie wanders into a row house by herself and finds its occupants dead or dying except for a squalling, neglected infant boy. She and Pauline return home with the child, whom the Brights will name Alex, and inquiries as to his parentage are soon abandoned in light of the sheer number of orphaned children already taxing city authorities. Nevertheless, Maggie keeps the location where she found Alex a secret and lies about the fact that the boy's sister was still alive when Maggie rescued him. Pauline is torn between her guilt over this impulsive adoption and her desire to fill the void left by Henry’s death. Up to this point, the novel is a somber and unblinking appraisal of grief, calamity, and the disruptions of war. An extended denouement, set in the 1920s, lightens the mood, but at the expense of believability.
Stark realism offset by unreasonable optimism.