Every once in a while, a book comes along that is able to stretch the formulaic conformity of its recognized genre. While it may still have some tropes we love (and may even be loosely based on a story we recognize), it is in itself wholly originally and defies expectations. Megan Bannen’s The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is just such a novel. Within the pages of this literary gem, you will find a beautiful slow-burn romance, lost souls (in more ways than one), and incredible world-building.
While the setting is primarily an Undertaker’s business, this novel is anything but lifeless. In it, you meet Mercy Birdsall, a woman doing her best to keep her family’s mortuary business afloat after her father suffers from health ailments. Though it’s named Birdsall & Son, Mercy is truly running the show, doing the work of many while she waits for her brother Zeddie to graduate from mortuary school. The Birdsall family (including her sister Lilian and Lil’s husband) are a cast of characters that could sustain their own novels. Bannen breathes life onto the page with the Birdsall family who are equally hilarious, heartwarming, and frustrating to Mercy in a way readers with unhinged relatives can relate to.
Mercy lives in magical Tanria, a place whose society appears to be an approximation of Appalachia or the midwest, but dropped in their own fantastical continent. Tanria is plagued by the threatening drudges. These wandering spirits inhabit the bodies (and appendixes) of the recently deceased to wreak havoc on the living residents. This is where moody loner and co-protagonist Marshall Hart Ralston fits in this story. Hart, our novel’s gruff, but secret softy, risks life and limb to retrieve unclaimed bodies in Tanria for burial, all while helping to keep the drudges at bay. This is how Hart and Mercy meet, but that’s old news.
Where our story begins, they are not what I would consider friends. You see, things got off on the wrong foot at their first meeting, but Hart is a glutton for well-deserved punishment. Although, his ulterior motive is perhaps just to pet Mercy’s dog, as he’s been nothing if not devastated since the loss of his own four-legged best friend Gracie. Sweet little moments like that are packed in a novel about death, transforming the narrative into quite the cozy and warm experience. There are big things at play, but at its Hart, this is a story about finding the relationships you need to live.
This book follows its own path, but there is one major plot element that will feel pretty familiar; Hart and Mercy unknowingly become pen-pals. Similar to the classic 90’s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, or its inspiration, the 1940 classic Shop Around the Corner starring Jimmy Stewart, this novel inspires readers to root for our two leads, even when they think the worst of each other. My personal connection to this novel blossomed, as my husband and I watch Shop Around the Corner every Christmas. In it, two warring co-workers are unaware they’re falling in love through letters, and The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy reminded me more of this version than that of the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks remake. All this to say, it’s a tried-and-true romance formula that readers can absolutely trust to deliver a love-story worthy of their time. Bannen uses this plot-device as her springboard, but through her strange, yet wonderful world-building of truly original characters and landscape, she delivers a fantasy romance that isn’t like anything else out there right now in the genre.
Bannen treats the sensitive and emotionally heavy topics of death and afterlife with care and respect, all while tastefully balancing romance and madcap side characters. Within its pages, you will discover boats to the afterlife, mail-delivering animals who love a nip of whisky, gods and demigods, and the cut-throat business of Undertaking. So many quirks make up this delightful romance. If you’ve been searching for a love story that’s to die for, look no further than Megan Bannen’s The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy. Its got soul.
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannen is available for purchase now at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.