Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Posted November 13, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 23 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will SchwalbeThe End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Published by Knopf on October 2, 2012
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Source: the publisher

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Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, came home from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan with what seemed to be a rare form of hepatitis. When she still wasn’t feeling better a few months later, more testing revealed that she actually had Stage IV pancreatic cancer, which usually ends in death within six months.

Mary Anne lived for two years.

Both Will and Mary Anne had always been avid readers and had always shared their thoughts about books with one another. At the first chemo session that Will took his mother to, they decided to start a more formal book club, just for the two of them. This gave them something to do–that they both enjoyed–to fill the hours during Mary Anne’s chemo sessions. More importantly, I think, it gave them the opportunity to discuss certain subjects surrounding Mary Anne’s illness without having to discuss them in a personal way, and it gave them a way out of discussing those things when what they really needed was something to take their minds off of Mary Anne’s impending death.

I’ve read a few other reviews of this book, and something I’ve taken away from those (and our discussion of the book on Devourer of Books today) is that a lot of people are disappointed that The End of Your Life Book Club didn’t focus enough on the books that Will and his mother read together. I can understand that–book lovers love reading books written about books, and The End of Your Life Book Club does focus more on Mary Anne’s life, illness, and her relationship with Will and the rest of the family (although it did indeed give me a super long list of books that I want to read now). If I hadn’t been so interested in the story of Mary Anne’s illness, I might have been disappointed, too. The story of Mary Anne’s illness and how she and her family handled everything really hit home for me, though, and I ended up being more interested in her story than I was about their book club.

My grandmother (Nonny) died of ovarian cancer in December of 2001 (she was one of my favorite people in the world–almost like a second mother), and there were a lot of parallels between Nonny’s and Mary Anne’s illnesses. After Nonny was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, she lived for about a year and a half until she died at the age of 74 (Mary Anne was 75). Like Mary Anne, Nonny went through a lot of chemotherapy that made her very sick. Also like Mary Anne, she spent her last couple of days in a drug-induced coma. I admittedly don’t know as many details as I should about Nonny’s illness and how she handled it; eleven years later, I don’t remember if I consciously didn’t ask my mom questions that I didn’t really want the answers to, or if I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t want that to be the only thing Mom and I talked about when we called each other (I live in PA and Nonny lived back home in NY). I made it home as often as I felt I could, but I should have made it home more often. There are lots of things that I should have been helping my mother with at the time. When I talked to Nonny over the phone (or face-to-face when I went home), I mostly avoided talking about the cancer because I felt like she wouldn’t want that to be the only thing we talked about, either. To be honest, after she died, I just let it all go; there was really no sense in dwelling on any of it and making myself feel even more crummy. After reading The End of Your Life Book Club, though, I realized that there were so many other (better) ways I could have handled all of it. I was left with both good and bad feelings about that time; reading this book was very bittersweet for me. I immediately called my mother and we had a long talk about a lot of things that happened back then, and I think we still have more to talk about.

I thank Will Schwalbe for writing a book that made me think about some of the circumstances surrounding Nonny’s illness and death in a new way, while also presenting some new questions that I hadn’t given conscious thought to before now.

And the story of Mary Anne’s life–both before and during her battle with cancer–was truly inspiring. She was a pretty awe-inspiring woman, in many ways.

I liked Will Schwalbe’s writing style and the format of the book, and although I recommend this book to anyone who loves books, likes reading memoirs, or just wants to read about Mary Anne’s battle with cancer, it seems (from what I’ve read on other blogs) that the people who connect with The End of Your Life Book Club the most are those who have gone through similar experiences.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher through BOOK CLUB in exchange for participating in the discussion.)


  • sj

    This is a beautiful post, and I really want to give you a hug right now. <3

  • Such a lovely post; I’ve been wanting to read this, and now I want to even more.

  • Love this post Heather :*)

  • Nonny would be very proud of you to know all of the things you are doing and hear how she is still in your heart.

  • ♥

  • Thank you for this post, Heather, for the honesty and for letting me know now what I should do in handling my father’s illness. I am already exhausted physically and mentally from the long journeys and for dealing with the emotional hurts of my half siblings whose attitudes are luke-warm. Yesterday, I refused to call to find out how he was doing because I felt I needed a break And then this morning, the calls came for more money to take care of his basic needs and drugs at the hospital. I will be travelling this weekend and I pray for mercies.

    Thank God you had a wonderful relationhisp with your Nonny. Treasure it. 🙂

    • I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this, and I’m so sorry your father is sick. This is one of the hardest circumstances to deal with in life. You’re in my thoughts.

  • I’m so glad you enjoyed it and shared your story. I’ve seen a lot of people reviewing this recently and honestly had no idea what it was about. I doubt I’ll read it because I get too emotional with books like this, but maybe some day.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. 🙂

  • It’s so wonderful that this book helped you to connect with your mom about your Nonny. I haven’t been through an experience like that. I can only imagine how hard it is. I probably won’t read this one because I don’t think I could take being any more sad than I have been lately, but it sounds like a book that would be helpful to people who are going through or have gone through an experience like Mary Anne’s. Great review, Heather. I’m so sorry about your beloved Nonny. I know it has been years, but I also know that you probably think of her, and miss her, every day. *hugs*

    • Yes, this is probably not the right time for you to read this. Remember–I’m always here if you need to chat or vent. 🙂

  • What a beautiful post, Heather. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I’m so sorry about your Nonny.

  • Jerky Beef

    Omg, you’re killing me. I could never read that book and remain intact. Love, Your Sister

    • Jerky Beef! I was about to freak out over the name until I saw the comment was actually from you. Yeah, it was a little rough, but a good book nonetheless.

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  • I just started this book today and I am thankful that I know what I am in for! This is perhaps the best review I’ve read so far. And I’m sorry about your Nonny 🙁

    • Thank you so much. Welcome to the blog. 🙂

  • Read your review, as I had recently reviewed this book as well. What a heartfelt and personal review. I think the best part of this book was the perspective it granted us on the dying process from the point of view of Mary Ann.