Author: Will Schwalbe. This is his first memoir. He has worked in journalism and publishing and is the founder of cookstr.com
“What are you reading?”
That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less.
This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen. Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.
Why do we read?
“The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe explores this question and others about religion, happiness, loneliness, strength, family, and a host of other essential issues we encounter in life. It is through the act of reading—of immersing ourselves in stories, both fictional and true—that we understand who we are and we connect to the world at large. This is the legacy that Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, the other member of this very special book club, leaves him. Together, Schwalbe and Mary Anne read dozens of books together in the last two years of Mary Anne’s life, as she faced a terminal illness. By writing this memoir about the books they read and the discussions they shared about their readings, Schwalbe captures the lessons his mother tried to impart as she faced her final days, and he honors the inspiring spirit.
This is a great selection for people who enjoy learning about new books—I added several books to my own reading list after finishing “The End of Your Life Book Club”—and people who like memoirs. If you are facing the terminal illness of a loved one, however, I would recommend waiting on this for a while, as Mary Anne’s treatment is a major story line.
A very heartfelt, moving experience that the author has shared, readers will quickly fall in love and enjoy getting to know Schwalbe’s mother. A book not just about grief, but living with the certainty (and uncertainties) of terminal illness. I loved the anecdotes and stories from the Schwalbes’ earlier years within the book that showcase Mary Anne’s love of her family and everyone she knew, as well as the family bonds that are clear enough for the reader to see. Books take a special place in this family, and are cherished as they should be. At times heartbreaking and heartwarming, both are integral to story that we are so lucky to hear.
From Grind to Whine Stacey Bio
The End of Your Life Book Club is a touching memoir of a mother and son bonding over books, as they face her terminal cancer diagnosis. Schwalbe did an excellent job threading an impressive book list into the story of his mother’s last years. There are plenty of dog-ear worthy insights that make the reader love and appreciate his mother. However, beside these snippets, his development of characters (both of his mother and himself) fell short. Schwalbe’s writing style is just a bit too dry and event-based to do justice to such a heart-wrenching experience. Read this book for the excellent reading list, plus the reality of a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. But if you’re after a more emotional reading connection (and if you love a good tear-jerker as much as I do), there are others that do a better job of making you reach for your tissues.
Read instead: The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe
Author Will Schwalbe accompanies his ailing mother to her chemo treatments, and eventually the two of them form a very special mother-son book club during their time spent together. Over the span of 18 months, through the books they choose to read and the topics those books invariably generate, the son grows closer to his dying mother, and so, too, did this reader. I fell in love with Mary Anne and the tremendous courage, strength, and grace with which she lives her life and battles her illness.
Our society isn’t comfortable talking about death, which is unfortunate considering it’s natural and unavoidable, and therefore something we must all prepare for. All the more reason to pick up this book. Don’t be deterred by the subject matter; this book is not bleak or melancholy; on the contrary, I found it (and Mary Anne herself) quite inspiring and life-affirming. It’s a book for book lovers, for anyone who is curious about life and the myriad things life can teach us.
The End of Your Life Book Club is published by Knopf. Thanks to them for providing copies to our readers for this review. You can find them on Twitter and Facebook. You can find Will Schwalbe on Twitter or on his website.