As It Is in Heaven

As It Is in Heaven

by Niall Williams


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A man content to let life pass him by, schoolteacher Stephen Griffin is about to experience a miracle. For a string quartet from Venice has arrived in County Clare and, with it, worldly and beautiful violinist Gabriella Castoldi, who inspires love in the awkward Stephen. Although the town's blind musician senses its coming, the greengrocer welcomes its sheer joy, and Stephen's ailing father fears its power, none could have foreseen how the magical force of passion would change not only Stephen's life but, in the most profound and startling ways, the lives of everyone around them. A tale of dreams, life, and love, AS IT IS IN HEAVEN affirms the acclaimed author of Four Letters of Love as one of today's master storytellers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446676014
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 06/01/2000
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 469,585
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt


There are only three great puzzles in the world, the puzzle of love, the puzzle of death, and, between each of these and part of both of them, the puzzle of God.

God is the greatest puzzle of all.

When a car drives off the road and crashes into your life, you feel the puzzle of God. You feel the sharpness of its edges fall on top of you and know the immensity of the puzzle from the force of the life being crushed out of you. You want to lift the pieces and throw them away into the darkness. You feel the chill of loss, the drafty air, as if the walls of your soul have been knocked down in the night and you wake to realize that you are living in a vast exposed emptiness.

When the man driving the car turns out to be a drunken priest who receives only minor injuries, you wonder if God was ever there at all, or if the puzzle itself was your own invention to excuse the existence of the random and the brutal where they crisscrossed our days.

Philip Griffin wondered. He wondered what crime his ten-year-old daughter could have committed, what grievous error she had made that had drawn the priest's car upon her that afternoon. What fault could his wife, Anne, have been guilty of as she drove into Ranelagh to collect rosin for her daughter's half-sized cello? In the weeks and months following the accident Philip Griffin asked the questions and could arrive at only one answer: there was none. The fault was his own, the judgement had fallen not on them but upon him. For it was the survivor who suffered. In the weeks following the funeral of his wife and daughter he had scoured the burnt bottom of his soul for the myriad failings of his love-the days he had said nothing, had returned from work with some bitterness and left the children doing their homework, telling them to leave him alone when they came with copies, raising his newspaper like a drawbridge and retreating inside the loveless world of facts and news, until a knock came on the room door and he walked out to tea; the evenings he did not tell them he loved them but told them only to go to bed and be quiet or he'd be cross. He searched out each of his failings and then concluded that they were so numerous it was perfectly clear why God had smote his life with suffering. Understanding that was the only way he was able to continue living, for in his eyes his living with the hurt was a kind of cleansing. Mary and Anne were in heaven awaiting him, and he would be there to join them one day, when he had done whatever he could for his remaining child, Stephen; when life had at last purged his sins and cancer would arrive.

There was peace in that. The puzzle of God was not so bad after all, and Philip could endure suffering, knowing that at least when it was over it would mean he was forgiven.

In twenty years that day had not come. His son, Stephen, had become a schoolteacher and moved away from Dublin to the west. The fracture that had fallen between them the day of the crash, when they had each retreated into great guilty rooms of silence, had grown steadily wider, and the father had felt each year the weakening of his ability to reach his son. Stephen was a lone figure; he was tall and silent and intense, and had vanished from his father into the world of history books before he had finished his teens. Now he arrived one weekend a month to sit opposite his father in the sitting room and correct copies and read the newspaper while Puccini played on the small stereo and the light died in the street outside.


It was a late-autumn afternoon. The chestnut leaves had fallen in the garden and blackened the grass, which Philip Griffin did not rake. A small man, he sat in the front window with the Venetian blinds open and watched the road for the coming of his son's car. When it entered the driveway, he had looked away and gazed at the air as if watching the music. He heard Stephen turn his key in the door, but he did not get up. He sat with his hands on his knees and waited with the terrible immobility of those who have lost the means of talking to their children.

"Hello," Stephen said again.

The music was playing. His father raised his right hand three inches off his knee as a greeting, but said nothing more. He was listening to the singing like a man looking at a faraway place. There were words in the air, but Philip Griffin did not need to say them, he did not need to say: When your mother was alive, she liked this one," for Stephen already knew it. He knew the terrible sweetness of the melancholy in that music and how it soothed his father to be there within it. He said nothing and sat down.

On the small tape recorder beside his chair Philip Griffin turned up the volume and let the music fill the space between them. They had not seen each other for three weeks, but sat in their armchairs, surrounded by Puccini, as if the spell of the music would bear no interruption and the memory of the slim and tall figure of Anne Griffin was walking in the room. The sorrowfulness of the aria was cool and delicious; it was beyond their capability of telling, and while it played, father and son lingered in its brief and beautiful grief, each thinking of different women.

The heavy golden curtains of the room were tied back from the window; they had not been closed in many years, and their gathered folds held within them the ageing dust of the man who sat there every day. Philip Griffin had his face turned to the open Venetian blind, and bands of orange light fell across it as the streetlights came on. He was sixty-eight years old. He had never been handsome, but had once been lively. Now his hair grew like curling grey wires over his ears and in his ears, while the crown of his head was so bare it looked vulnerable and expectant of blows. As he sat he held his hands in his lap and sometimes looked down at them and turned them over, as if searching for traces of the cancer he imagined must be growing inside him. He was a tired man who had grown to dislike company. The place in his spirit where he was broken had grown so familiar to him, and he had so long ago abandoned the notion of any fingering or magic that could repair it, that his living had assumed a frayed quality, waiting for the last thread to give.

The music played, he held his hands. When three arias had ended, he reached down and clicked off the machine. "Well," he said, and looked through the darkness of the room to see with astonishment the changed face of his son.

(c) 1999 by Niall Williams"

Reading Group Guide

1. So many things in As It Is in Heaven seem to happen by chance: Anne and Mary Griffith's death, Gabriella filling in for Vittoro Mazza, Moira Fitzgibbon finding Stephen's car and taking him to the concert. Do you think these things happened by chance? Or is a larger force at work in the universe of this novel?

2. How does Philip react to Anne and Mary's death? How does Stephen react?

3. Stephen and his father rarely speak, but Philip is able to figure out what is on his son's mind by playing chess with him. How else are characters able to communicate without words? In what ways are you able to communicate nonverbally with people?

4. Music plays a large role in As It Is in Heaven, yet each character experiences music in a different way. What does music mean to Philip? To Stephen? To Gabriella? What do you think the importance of music is in this novel?

5. Philip "loved Stephen as a wall loves a garden. He knew his son's life was lacking in excitement or joy, but believed that it needed to be fiercely protected from the treachery of dreams." What do you think the author means by this?

6. Time is an essential ingredient of this novel. Stephen is a history teacher, Philip is worried about the amount of time he has left on earth, and during many moments in the novel, time seems to stop for the characters. What do you think the significance of this is? Why is time so important in this novel? What does this suggest about the future and the past?

7. When Stephen was sitting at home listening to Mozart, "whatever makes the world move moved the world then for Stephen Griffin" and he decides to go to the concert to see Gabriella play. What do you think it is that makes Stephen suddenly decide to go? Was there ever a moment in your own life that caused you to react in a similar manner?

8. Moses Mooney is an extremely enigmatic character. What role do you think he plays in the novel? Is there any significance to this blindness?

9. Equally enigmatic is the character of Nelly Grant. What do you make of her and her unique talents and gifts?

10. Why do you think Philip Griffin becomes so obsessed with his death? Why does he decide to give all of his money away? Why does he die when he does?

11. Gabriella doesn't fall in love with Stephen as quickly as he falls in love with her. Why do you think this is so? What kind of relationship does this set up between the two of them? Why doesn't this bother Stephen?

12. Why does Gabriella leave Stephen to return to Italy? It is just because she discovers that she's pregnant? What prevents her from telling him the truth about her baby?

13. What do you think Maria is talking about when she tells Gabriella the folly of believing that "a day will come and you will know"? Why does this convince Gabriella to return to Ireland? Is she wise to return to Stephen even if she's not sure how she feels about him?

14. On page 240, Gabriella tells Stephen that "I love you...but am not in love with you." Do you think this is true? Is it ever possible to be certain about love?

15. Why do you think the title of this book is As It Is in Heaven?

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As It Is in Heaven 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
RedH on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A really moving story about how a father/husband who becomes so deep in grief the relationship between him and his son is jeoparised. The story highlight's how love is not easy on all levels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Don't be put off by the theme of this book. There is so much beauty in everything Niall Williams writes that I look forward to each book knowing that I will experience something that his literary gift helps me to see in a new way. A gifted writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nail Williams has some secret to Love that we all wish we knew. I thought the characters were so opposite and so wonderfully combined. Stephan was hard to read at first, but I fell in love with his child like demeanor. That his whole life was changed by that 'feeling' You know, that feeling you get when God speaks to you. You don't know why you have to do something, but you do it anyway, with an overwhelming sense of need to accomplish the task set before you, just made this wonderful love story so true to life. The adventure portrayed and the unconditional love shown by Stephan is so wonderfully endearing. The ocean setting and the weather that they had to endure plays a great part in telling this story. You'll love it. I can't wait to hear what everyone else has to say about this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel delves inside the souls of the characters and shows us what it means to grieve. I must say the book progressed slowly, but so does the process of grief. Williams has beautiful prose and immaculate descriptions. I look forward to reading more from this gifted writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As in his deeply affecting debut novel, Four Letters Of Love, Irish writer Niall Williams again explores the emotional terrain of that ever fascinating emotion - love. Woven of magic and touching reality, As It Is In Heaven once more showcases the author's luminous prose in an enchanting narrative that soars and sings as gloriously as the music of Puccini and Vivaldi he so eloquently describes. Set in mythic villages and along Ireland's craggy, unforgiving coast, As It Is In Heaven traces the evolution of three people who have been broken by loss; it would seem irreparably so. Their days are contoured by foreboding. No longer active participants in life, they are the heartsore, docile legatees of parsimonious Fate. Mourning shrouds the life of Philip Griffin, a retired tailor, who asks God why his wife and 10-year-old daughter were allowed to die in a tragic auto accident some 20 years earlier. When there is no answer from God, Philip believes, 'The fault was his own, the judgment had fallen not on them but upon him. For it was the survivor who suffered.' This suffering is mirrored in his son, Stephen, now 28, and a schoolteacher in western Ireland. The shared question of why they have survived has forged a bond between father and son, 'They did not speak of it but took the puzzle of their days everywhere with them, growing an identical jagged wrinkle across the middle of their foreheads and talking fitfully in the brief periods of their night sleep.' Philip's solace is found in the knowledge that he will be reunited with his wife and daughter after he has done whatever he can for his son. Not daring to imagine that love is real for it would make life too hard, Stephen finds a modicum of peace by accepting his solitude, and turning ever more inward. 'Life had imbued him with a deep humility and then nourished it with a Catholic sense of his own unworthiness.' Nonetheless, love does find an incredulous Stephen. When an Italian String Quartet comes for a performance in County Clare, he sees Gabriella Castoldi, a lovely master violinist, and his days are forever altered. Gifted, enigmatic, and alone, she has never forgotten her father's description of love - it's like a cheap perfume that soon wears off. When Philip, who is ill, learns that Stephen is in love, he fears for his son, believing such passion will be unrequited and only bring further pain. 'Desperate for a stay of death to help his son,' Philip makes a pact with God - 'If you let me live.....I will try and do some act of goodness each day.' To this end he withdraws a major portion of his savings to give away. The naive, introverted Stephen, to his utter surprise, boundless joy, and sometimes dismay, recognizes that he is in love. Forgetting all else, including his teaching position, he begins an ardent pursuit of Gabriella. Puzzlement is her first response, followed by disbelief that a man capable of such selfless devotion could exist. Her reaction is appropriate, as there is common ground between them: 'the expectation of failure and the familiarity of despair.' For Stephen. Gabriella's acquiescence is hard won, and even more difficult to keep. They are together only briefly when Gabriella announces that she is returning to Venice, and even as she speaks 'wondering why she felt the brutal necessity of testing love, of bending its back towards breaking, and trying to bring on before time the grief she imagined was inevitable.' There's mysticism in this story - mysticism in the beliefs of the unforgettably fey Nelly Grant, the greengrocer who nourishes the couple. There is also magic - magic in the pen of Niall Williams who stunningly extrapolates the essence of love. Read As It Is In Heaven and rejoice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
a book about the mystical and transforming powers of love, life, nature, music. exquisite imagery. written with such brilliance and astonishing beauty, it has literally transformed my soul.