I bought this book just after my father died, and am relieved that I didn't read it then: Eddie, Albom's protagonist, is an oily-handed maintenance man like my dad was, and he's just a little older, it being his 83rd birthday that's his last.
Eddie is the maintenance man at Ruby Pier, a faded seaside fairground somewhere on the east coast of America. He's still working, still enjoying his work, though he's crippled by arthritis and a war wound. He's a lonely old man who takes pleasure in doing his job well, and -- never having had a child of his own -- in entertaining the children who come to the pier.
On his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies. And the rest of the novel is what it says on the front: The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Heaven, at least to start with, looks a lot like Ruby Pier, and Albom's concise, lucid, unselfconscious prose is strong on evocative sensory description. Each of Eddie's five people is waiting to teach, or remind, or explain to him a simple truth, and while these are suitably life-affirming and positive, Albom doesn't over-sugar the narrative. Some things can't be fixed. Some events scar for life.
There are some suitably philosophical one-liners ("No life is a waste. The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.") and some heart-wrenching exchanges (your mileage may vary), but the novel is not nearly as mawkish or sentimental as I'd feared. Neither is it overtly religious. Although there are references to God, this is a heaven without angels -- at least, without angels of the traditional sort.
Interwoven with the five people and their five heavens -- including a heaven made of marriages, and one that makes sense of the soundtrack to Eddie's dreams -- are snapshots of Eddie on various birthdays, and those, as much as the post-mortem explanations and understanding, comprise a portrait of a quiet yet meaningful life.
Perhaps it only seems so to me because I'm still grieving, but this is a very calm novel, very thought-provoking and reflective ... not only in itself but in the sense of reflecting whatever's on the reader's mind.
Once she'd gone, he let the days go stale. He put his heart to sleep.