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The End of Your Life Book Club

by Will Schwalbe


The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
© Knopf
Knopf, 2012

In 2007, Mary Anne Schwalbe, mother of Will, was diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. In Will Schwalbe's new book The End of Your Life Book Club, he recounts his visits with his mother throughout her illness until her death. Through their two person book club, Will and his mother are able to consider and discuss topics that they were previously unable to verbalize to each other. Their shared love of the written word gives them the starting point to confront the bigger issues in life.

As a result of his mother's prognosis, Will Schwalbe realizes that he and his mother will be spending many hours together in the Memorial Sloan-Kettering outpatient care center while she receives her treatments. Both he and his mother were avid and voracious readers before this book club, and they did at times even read the same books around the same time and discuss them together. However, they decide to finally make their book club official and take turns choosing books to read to discuss at their next meeting. Schwalbe writes: "Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: 'What are you reading?'" The book was an afterthought, says Schwalbe, written after his mother's death and compiled from notes he took at the time, his memories, and memories of those who were around them.

Each chapter of the memoir is given the title of the book Schwalbe and his mother read next. Each book presents a difficult situation, which lends itself to conversation, which eventually, and easily, changes from conversation between mother and son to conversation between two people; two friends.

The thread throughout the story of the book club is the extraordinary humanitarian life of Mary Anne Schwalbe. It is clear that she was a woman who never cowered in the face of danger. She so clearly cared more about helping others than she did about helping herself. She was involved with people at her church, with the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, with the International Rescue Committee, as well as many other organizations. Her biggest project, and the one she worked on tirelessly throughout the book, despite her prognosis, was the establishment of a library in Afghanistan.
She travelled to countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Southeast Asia and West Africa to visit refugee camps. Upon her return to the United States, she took it upon herself to advocate for those despondent people. Her humanitarian endeavors led her to choose books written by or about refugees, such as The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara. Kamara was captured in Sierra Leone at twelve years old and was released after a while, after two young boys cut off both her hands so that she could not vote. They wanted her to be a warning, they said, for the president. Kamara finally fled and felt hopeless until a passerby gave her a mango and she insisted on eating it herself, with the stubs of her arms. It wasn't until she was able to feed herself that she began to feel that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

These were the types of stories that Mary Anne loved to read and discuss with her son, along with perennial classics and mass market fiction. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was read, along with Appointment in Samarra. And each book brought them to a deeper level of conversation about life and death, about family and friends, about wellness and illness, about faith and pragmatism. The Etiquette of Illness, for example, taught Will how to talk to his mother about how she was feeling and reminded him to back off if she didn't want to talk about it one day.

Initially, the doctors gave Mary Anne six months to live. But with her strength and optimism, she was able to live much longer, for about two years. She saw birthdays and holidays; she received awards and was able to be honored through life rather than through death. As Will realizes early on in the book, "We all have a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn't the opposite of doing; it's the opposite of dying." Their book club allows them to continue living, and it allows to reader to live and contemplate life with them.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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