Will Schwalbe: The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) A Memoir

End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club is one of those books that needs a review because it’s hard to tell from the blurb what it is about. Sure, it’s about books and the love for books and a beautiful friendship between a mother and son, but more than that it’s about an amazing woman and her terminal illness. People who pick this up may think, like I did, that it was to a large extent about books, which isn’t the case. Books are mentioned on every other page, but the largest part is about Schwalbe’s mother, her life and her battle with pancreatic cancer.

Will Schwalbe and his mother always loved to read and discuss books, but when she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has to undergo regular chemo therapy, they decide to use the time they spend together at the hospital discussing books they have both read and that’s how they start The End of Your Life Book Club. The beginning of each chapter is dedicated to the book they have been reading and the discussion they have. The book choices are varied and I loved reading about them. Continental DriftCrossing to Safety, The Painted Veil, Olive Kitteridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn,The Elegance of the Hedgehog are but a few books they read, discuss and enjoy.

After this usually brief paragraph about books, Schwalbe leads us directly to his main topic: his mother. His mother must have been a very courageous woman. She travelled from one hot spot to the next for the Women’s Refugee Committee. She helped refugees all over the world and put herself in great danger to do so. She was a fighter but at the same time she was a genuinely kind woman and to read about her and the love the people felt for her is quite beautiful.

What will not be everyone’s cup of tea is the detailed description of the therapies, the side effects and the battle to just live a few months longer. Pancreatic cancer is mostly terminal and most people don’t have much more than a few months after the diagnosis. Schwalbe’s mother was lucky, she lived a full two years. Years that she lived to the fullest, not missing any opportunity to enjoy life and do good. This is quite admirable. I liked her belief that you should never look away from what is bad in our world but always strive to do good.

I feel heartless writing this but the book did not work for me. I have no problem to read about terminal illness. I read the memoir written by Susan Sontag’s son and found it excellent. So that’s not the reason. And of course I love reading about books but in a way, I felt this memoir was too personal. There were too many details added that just didn’t mean anything to me, because it’s not my mother or someone I know. She ate this and liked it, she drank that and couldn’t swallow… She saw these friends and those grandchildren… There were just too many mundane and ordinary details that are only significant when you know a person. Since they wrote a blog about her illness to keep family and friends updated, I suspect, large portions of this book were based on those entries. This may be a reason why the writing was a bit bland.

I think this is a book which could be of great help if you have a friend or relative who has cancer, especially pancreatic cancer. It shows extremely well and in a lot of detail what can be done, what the side effects of some of the therapies are and when you have to decide to let go. As a book on cancer it’s great. As a book about one person’s mother, it’s too personal and as a book about books it is a let down. It says it’s about books and reading but they rather form a bracket around the rest.

Still I’ve discovered a few titles I didn’t know and would like to read:

Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine

Reynold Prices’s Feasting the Heart

Danyal Mueenuddin In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

There was also one book I know I will not be able to read and that is  Mariatu Kamara’s The Bite of the Mango (look it up and you’ll know why). Reading about it made me sick.

Have you read any of these?