Recently, I gave my mom Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven as a gift. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what it was about. I had merely heard various TV and radio personalities who were roughly my mom's age and attitudinal disposition extol the book as a thoughtful and inspiring encore to Albom's first best-seller, Tuesdays with Morrie, which I had not read. I only knew of Albom in his capacity as a sportswriter, and, subscribing to the stereotype that sportswriters are effective for little beyond churning out clichés and comparing quarterbacks to the protagonists of epic poems, I wasn't particularly compelled to pick it up myself. But it was a lazy vacation day, and the activity of collecting flies in front of the TV was growing stale (or, rather, I was growing stale as a result of the activity). So I began to read.

The story, as Albom states expressly, "begins at an end." Eddie is a hardened WWII vet with a bum knee, a severe countenance, and a patient temperament that bespeaks underpinnings of good nature. He works maintenance at the local carnival, where he lives a drab but comfortingly predictable existence?until one day, his 83rd birthday, a ride malfunctions and Eddie is killed attempting to rescue a young girl from harm's way. The end of Eddie's life, however, is only the beginning of his journey. He awakens on Ruby Pier, the very location of the carnival where his life terminated, in the presence of a man with blue skin whom he vaguely remembers as being an attraction in the carnival's freak show when he used to visit it as a child. Eddie is confused about why, in death, he has been returned to the place he occupied, and even grew to despise, in life. The blue man explains that he is the first of five people with whom Eddie will converse during his journey in the service of granting Eddie "the greatest gift God can give:" an explanation of his life.

I was skeptical about the agenda that this book might try to push. Books that try to convey conservative religious themes in the guise of creative writing are frustrating; even to those who identify with the denomination those books seem to advertise (see The O'Reilly Factor for Kids). The Five People You Meet in Heaven does not preach. Though it deals with the faith-based concept of the afterlife, it does not adhere to any catechism. It is an unpretentious, thoughtful and thought-provoking investigation of what might happen?and what, it seems, ought to happen?when we die. Albom's religious sensibilities come through in the writing, for sure?classic Judeo-Christian themes, like atonement, play roles in Eddie's post-mortem experience. But then, his protagonist is not exactly in touch with his own faith. In fact, by the time he dies, the weight of a difficult and sorrow-beleaguered life makes it appear that Eddie does not have any faith left?in anything. Albom's interpretation of his faith is by no means narrow, and he approaches the issue with a creative and open mind. The book is, more than anything, an exploration of what our lives mean, not necessarily how we ought to live them.

Themes and subtexts aside, The Five People You Meet in Heaven is superbly narrated. The characters?their pain, their sadness, their flaws, their love?are extremely realistic. Eddie's mental fatigue in the war, the depression that follows, the anguish caused by his relationship with his father, the pain of watching as the woman he loves slowly succumbs to cancer, the plight of a man who is inexorably chained to a seemingly meaningless existence, are all very human, providing effective counterbalance to the abstract spiritual side of Eddie's journey.

Reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven will not be an earth-shaking experience. Though creative, it is not especially bold. It might read like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and some will argue that it is merely another installment in a long tradition of Judeo-Christian allegorical tales. But it is not fair to categorize it as such. The Five People You Meet in Heaven is subtle, thoughtful, and a quick read. I would liken it to Honey Nut Cheerios: it's sweet but not too sugary, it's good for you, and it leaves a good taste in your mouth. Do your best to forget that contrived analogy, and read this book.