The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe
Nonfiction — Memoir
Knopf; October 2, 2012
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.
(To learn more about Will Schwalbe, please visit his author page on Goodreads.)
**If you choose to purchase this title using the links below, I will receive a small percentage of the sale (to be used toward site maintenance and buying more books).
(I received a copy of this book from the publisher through BOOK CLUB in exchange for participating in the discussion.)