Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Don't be put off by the title of Will Schwalbe's book, The End of Your Life Book Club. Yes, for two years he accompanied his mother to the hospital for treatments for her cancer. And, yes, most pancreatic cancer patients die within six months. But, Schwalbe's book is a celebration of his mother's remarkable life, and a celebration of the two years he had to share book discussions with her. The book is actually a message of love.

Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007. By the end of that year, Will met his mother regularly at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. While she underwent her chemo, they talked. And, one day in November, they began their book club when he asked, "What are you reading?" She was reading Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, a book with a woman dying. That book allowed mother and son to bridge a gap when she referred to a character in the book, saying he would be alright after his wife's death. Schwalbe says, "The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing." And, he continues, "Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy, and they had always given us something to talk about when we were stressed or anxious."

Will's mother was a remarkable woman, a woman who had traveled and worked all over the world, helping students, then refugees. She worked in war-torn countries, and was determined to raise the money to build a library in Afghanistan. And, she was misdiagnosed with hepatitis when she first returned from a trip to that country.  After months of feeling tired, pancreatic cancer was finally diagnosed.

In the course of Mary Anne Schwalbe's last two years, mother and son must have read at least 150 books. There's an extensive list at the end, and so much of the book consists of those book discussions. The book itself becomes a book discussion, as well as a discussion of life and death. Any reader of serious fiction and nonfiction will appreciate the conversations about literature and life. And, I know I'm not doing justice to the brilliant woman whose strength shines on these pages.

Will Schwalbe brings his mother to life again through the books she loved, and the storied life she led. And books challenged her and comforted her to the end. "Books focused her mind, calmed her, took her outside of herself." Schwalbe knows how fortunate he was to have those two years with his mother, since so many people die quickly from pancreatic cancer. However, The End of Your Life Book Club isn't about death. It's about a mother and son sharing their lives and beliefs through their conversations about books. And, it's about a realization that readers everywhere will appreciate. "Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying."

Will Schwalbe's website is

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. Alfred A. Knopf. 2012. ISBN 9780307399663 (hardcover), 336p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that explanation. I had read something else that explained this book wasn't about dieing but about living. I think the title must be putting people off. In a fascinating way, I guess you could say we participate in Lesa's Blog book club. I wish this book had been written about 25 years (I first typed tears) ago. It would have been something my mother and I could share as she was dieing from breast cancer. We were actually waiting for a book by a certain author which did come out as she got the news that the end was near. I offered to buy it, but she was always so withdrawn that she shrugged her shoulders as if to say, why bother, we won't finish.

If only ...

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Sandie. You're right. Sometimes there are if onlys left over. Lee Child's publicist was actually kind enough to send me an advanced copy of his book (unheard of with his books!) because I told her Jim was dying. The book arrived, but by the time it did, Jim was too sick to appreciate it. I had so hoped it was the last book he could read.

You might still appreciate the book. It is about living, not dying.

Anonymous said...

I had intended to read this and had forgotten the title. Thanks! Glad to hear it is a good one.


Olympia Search Engine Optimization said...

I loved the book. Not only were the books that Will and his mother discussed some of my all time favorites, but, the growth of the mother-son relationship as they head towards the end if her life a beautiful thing to experience.

Lesa said...

It was a beautiful book, "Olympia". Thank you for commenting.