The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe
After this book received universally good reviews from people I trust/have similar taste to (there’s a strong correlation there; I should probably investigate that sometime) I knew I would read it eventually, but I worried it would be super depressing. The “end of your life” part of the title is not euphemistic; it really is about the end of someone’s life. But it was a surprisingly entertaining, easy read. I’m not saying I didn’t get sad at all; I’m not that cold-hearted.
This is a memoir written by American publisher-turned-journalist Schwalbe about the books he and his mother Mary Anne read together when she was dying of cancer. They knew from her first diagnosis that the cancer was terminal, so there is no question how the book will end. This gives the book a largely matter-of-fact background of chemotherapy, pain relief and other palliative care, but also the emotional side of dealing with and preparing for death.
“I was fine until right after I fastened my seat belt. For me, there’s something about planes that isolates and intensifies sadness, the way a looking glass can magnify the sun until it grows unbearably hot and burns.”
The gradual change (for both Will and Mary Anne) from denial to anger to acceptance is clear without being overtly discussed. By which I don’t mean that they ever deny her diagnosis or expect a magical turnaround, but initially they don’t discuss death at all, they just get on with the surgery and trying out different chemo drugs. However, it is of course there the whole time. In fact, when Mary Anne is diagnosed, her daughter, Will’s sister Nina, is about to move to Switzerland with her family and must make the decision whether or not to go, which of course boils down to: does Mary Anne have weeks left or years?
This uncertainty is something I haven’t really read about before, though I know (and have known) people for whom it is true, and it is in some ways harder on the family than the fact of death itself. How far ahead do you allow yourself to plan? Do you book holidays? Do you throw great big birthday and other celebratory parties because they might be the last one with her? Following Mary Anne’s lead, the family slowly figure all these things out – while she can, she wants to do everything she can, including continuing to work and travelling abroad. As her health worsens and her energy levels drop, plans simplify and are built around what she can and can’t do.
“Those extraordinary chemicals, with their remarkable names, now sound totally different: Gemcitabine. Xeloda. Before they sounded like harsh detergents. Now they sound cool and magical, like a new rock band you’ve come to love.”
Mary Anne was a wonderful, inspiring woman. In fact, the whole family are and made me feel quite inadequate at times, but Mary Anne especially. After responding to an unsolicited begging letter from a nun, she quit a very good, secure job as the head of a New York girls’ school to start a charity for women refugees. She travelled to many of the least desirable parts of the world to meet for herself the people she was helping. The danger that she had put herself in time and again is brought home by the fact that during the timeline of this book, a friend and colleague of hers is held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But most importantly, of course, at least for this to be the book that it is, Mary Anne and Will share a deeply ingrained love for books. They discuss the books they read in depth, which appears to be something they have always done, but the difference now is twofold – they are choosing to read the same books, even calling it a book club, and they are spending more time alone together than perhaps ever (Will is the middle of three children, after all) as Will accompanies Mary Anne to the doctor, to chemo and spends more time with her at home. (I should add here that so too do Will’s father, brother and sister and all their partners, but this book is about Will and his mother and their time together.)
“In the summer, Mom and I had read slender books. Now we were reading one long book after another. Maybe that was one way of expressing hopefulness—you had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolaño, or Thomas, or Halberstam…I remarked to Mom how all the books we were reading then shared not just length but a certain theme: fate and the effects of the choices people make.”
The books they read are many and varied, though fairly firmly literary. Each chapter is named after a book that was of particular significance but the full list of books discussed is provided as an appendix and is six full pages long. You don’t need to have the books to follow the discussions of them but when it was a book I’ve read, I did feel a little glow of “I’ve read that! I could join this conversation!” The book discussions tend not to be so much about the style or quality of writing, but more about the subject matter. Often Will uses a book as a jumping-off point to tell us about Mary Anne’s life or anecdotes from earlier in their life together.
Ridiculously, considering the situation, I found myself at times jealous of the relationship Will and Mary Anne have through books. Not that I’m not close to my Mum. In fact, she gave me this book, which at the time I didn’t twig was especially significant. But currently we have very different taste in books. She likes memoirs/biographies to the exclusion of all else, so I don’t think we could come up with a very long list of books to share. Then again, this is of course a memoir and I really liked it, so perhaps I should lend it to her and have a mini book club next time we see each other. Hmm… But back to the review…
This feels like a very honest book. We learn about Will’s life, about the books he didn’t finish reading even though Mary Anne was eager to discuss them, about the blog that Mary Anne wrote in Will’s name to keep their extended family and friends up to date with her health (she felt it wouldn’t be suitable for it to written by her!) and about Will and Mary Anne’s different attitudes toward religion, plus of course about the long slow decline of terminal cancer. In the end, it was sad but not heartbreaking. I’m not sure if this is because Mary Anne was in her 70s and had lived a rich and full life, or if it is down to the way Will writes about her, about how intellectually sharp and full of hope and kindness she remained to the end.
I think Schwalbe found the right combination of topics here, so that it isn’t all about pain and suffering, or sorrow and self-reflection, or a biography of a great and inspiring woman, or even just about great books, but instead it’s a book that pays tribute to Mary Anne and appeals to the intellectual and emotional draw of books, while also dealing with a tough subject that we will all have to face up to at some point. He also found the right balance between writing about the pain and difficulty of his mother’s slow death and the positive side of the situation: he had the warning to start spending more time with his mother, and had rich, rewarding times with her at the end of her life.
I don’t think Schwalbe is himself a great literary writer, so this doesn’t have the writerly quality of Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, say (which in fact is one of the books discussed), but I suppose that makes this book more accessible and serves as a reminder that not every avid reader is also a great writer. I can’t see myself checking out Schwalbe’s book about e-mail, but I do think that if I read books covered in The End of Your Life Book Club I might well come back to it to remind myself what Will and Mary Anne had to say!
First published 2012 by Hodder & Stoughton.
Source: A Christmas present from my Mum.