“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.
Will and Mary Anne share their hopes and concerns with each other—and rediscover their lives—through their favorite books. When they read, they aren’t a sick person and a well person, but a mother and a son taking a journey together. The result is a profoundly moving tale of loss that is also a joyful, and often humorous, celebration of life: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page.
Sometimes, in your life, you hear about “those books”. You know the ones … they are the books that everyone talks about, and the moment the title is mentioned it’s as if a hush descends. People start to smile when they talk about the contents, and they share oblique references as if in some kind of special club. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be part of the crowd that had read the book, but so many people whose opinions I trust had told me, in solemn tones, “Jenn… just read the book.”
There’s a reason I trust their advice and options – they are so often correct.
At the start of the book, we are introduced to Mary Anne through the eyes of her children, and especially through her son, Will. Mary Anne was the kind of person you wish you could meet in person – a passionate advocate for those without a voice, an avid reader who loved to discuss her favourite books and to receive new recommendations herself, and a caring parent who managed to give her children both love and limits even as adults. She gave her children and friends wonderful life lessons, many of which are enumerated by Schwalbe at the end of the book. The poignancy lies in that most of Mary Anne’s lessons are those that my own mother and father have shared with me: Make your bed every morning. Write thank you notes immediately. Keep a collection of presents on hand. Celebrate occasions. Be kind. These are simple things, but they resonate in us because they become the way we life our lives and, more importantly, the way we interact with each other.
The conversations that Will and Mary Anne have together as they discuss a truly incredible span of books are absorbing and revealing. For Mary Anne, books have a spiritual connection in some way, and meet a need in her life at that moment. Will does not have the same spiritual beliefs as his mother, but eventually comes to realize that books are a conduit to the deeper conversations he has with his mother – about her cancer and her treatment, her views on life and her past.
“That’s one of the things that books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.” ~ p. 58
While there are numerous book recommendations throughout the story, it’s the conversations that drive this book. Through books, Will and his mother, as well as other members of his extended family are able to participate in a meaningful dialogue about everything going on in their lives. The cancer is always present, but Mary Anne demonstrates through her actions that she is determined to spend her time with cancer living, not dying. I love her attitude, and her determination that she will not allow the cancer to redefine her as a person, despite the implied restrictions placed upon her.
Not all the discussions are serious, however. There have been many spirited debates between my book-loving friends about the Tolkien versus Lewis dilemma (Schwalbe’s mother asserted that she had never met anyone who really liked both Tolkien and Lewis. Everyone seemed to like one or the other), and I would have to say at this point that she is absolutely right.
My copy of this book is filled with post-it notes – something the author himself commented upon when I met him recently. There are post-its to mark quotes that I found particularly memorable for my own life, quotes that I wanted to include in this review, books that they read that interested me, books that I wanted to introduce to others …. Eventually, there were more post-its than I could count. That speaks to the nature of the book, as there is much to absorb. I will confess, I knew how this book was going to end, and had put off finishing it for weeks. It wasn’t until I knew that I was meeting the author in a few hours before I managed to bring myself to finish the final forty pages or so. I read it in a café, and after finishing, felt the tears on my cheeks. My waiter came over and quietly asked if I was okay. When I explained that I had just finished a wonderful book, he did a remarkable thing: instead of backing away slowly as many might, he leaned on a chair, and asked, “Will you tell me about it?” From that moment, another great conversation about books developed.
Having said all of this, it isn’t an easy read. I have friends who have lost close family members to pancreatic cancer while others to other forms of the disease, and this is not the book for them. It is intimate and emotional, and you become as invested in Mary Anne as her family and friends must have been. That’s not easy to take, and knowing what the eventual outcome must be – and, no spoiler here, the end is pretty clearly told – it doesn’t make things easier.
For most of us, we will watch our parents become older, face medical events beyond our and their control, and, eventually, die. What this book does best is remind us that there is power in choosing to live your life even in the face of eventual pain and loss. Books, and reading in general are an outlet to be sure, but they are also a way of communicating with each other. As Schwalbe puts it:
“Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favourite books without thinking of her – and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.” ~ p. 7
Keep reading, keep living and keep inspiring others. Thanks to Mary Anne, and to Will for sharing that lesson with all of us.
The End of Your Life Book Club is published by Knopf, a division of Random House Canada and was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It may be purchased from Chapter’s/Indigo,
Amazon and your friendly neighbourhood independent bookstore.