A Feature Review of
The End of Your Life Book Club
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon.
You might imagine you know how this story is going to go.
With a title like The End of Your Life Book Club, and the introduction of a diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer near the beginning of the book, it might be tempting to bring a set of presuppositions to this memoir. I am loathe to judge a book by its cover – or title – but in the case of this particular book, I confess I was expecting a downer of a read.
I was so very wrong. Author Will Schwalbe tells the story of his mother Mary Anne’s nearly two-year long battle with a terminal disease, but the book is about life, love and literature, not impending death. Mary Ann wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Mary Anne Schwalbe was a trailblazing woman whose deep faith and keen intellect spurred her to a life of accomplishment and activism. She was the Director of Admissions at Harvard, then Radcliffe, before moving on to positions at two exclusive private schools in New York City. She went on to lead the Women’s Commission (now known as the Women’s Refugee Commission), working and traveling tirelessly to better the lives of women and children uprooted by persecution and war.
After returning from a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2007 Mary Anne battled illness for weeks before her doctors discovered that she had pancreatic cancer. Sitting in the waiting room of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s outpatient care center, Mary Anne and her son, Will, asked one another what each was reading, a question that had shaped their relationship thoughout Will’s life. When Mary Ann told him she was reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing To Safety, Will dug his copy out of his “to be read” pile and began working his way through the volume.
“The novel gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing…Books had always been a way for my mother and me to introduce and explore topics that concerned us but made us uneasy, and they had also always given us something to talk about when we were stressed or anxious. In the months since her diagnosis, we’d started talking more and more about books. But it was with Crossing To Safety that we both began to realize that our discussion were more than casual – that we had created, without knowing it, a very unusual book club, one with only two members.”
Will Schwalbe, who’d spent most of his adult life in publishing, rising to the position of Senior V.P. and Editor-In-Chief of Hyperion Books, journeyed with his mother through new reads and revisited old favorites during the course of Mary Anne’s illness. Books had always been the language of the heart in the family. Facing a terminal diagnosis, each book savored by mother and son shaped their conversations about what each was experiencing. These books ranged from then-current best-sellers (Khaled Housseini’s A Thousand Splended Suns, Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) to classic works of literature (Shakespeare, Shaw) to lighthearted reads by the likes of P.G. Wodehouse. A wide-ranging collection of voices including Ngaio Marsh, C.S. Lewis, Jhumpa Hahirir, Erica Jong, Joan Didion, Herman Wouk and T.S. Elliot were all on the list of nearly 150 books and authors the mother and son read or referenced during the days and months of the end of life book club was officially in session.
It had been unofficially in session for much longer, as Mary Anne, a teacher at heart no matter what her job title was, understood books to be her best “companions and teachers”. Will, who’d been immersed in the business of books, reengaged at a deep level with all that reading meant in both his own life and in the life of his mother. He recognized that he would hear her voice in the voice of the authors she loved for the rest of his life:
“…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 favorite books without thinking of her – and when I pass them on and recommend them, I know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in this world.”
Will blends their lively conversations into a narrative that weaves Mary Anne’s extraordinary life story into the march through her illness, which included rounds of palliative chemo and its difficult, painful side effects. Mary Anne squeezes every drop of her life into creating meaningful time with her husband, children, their spouses/partners and grandchildren as well as to her small army of beloved friends, coworkers and former students. She skims some of the cream of her fading energy to raise funds for a library project in Afghanistan as well. Those herculean (and ultimately successful) humanitarian efforts flowed from Mary Anne’s Protestant Christian faith, a faith Will honors but doesn’t share. Mother and son are very close, and it is this sense of honor, of valuing who Mary Anne is as well as celebrating her accomplishments, that permeates every page of this remarkably unsentimental story.
Their relationship is not a dyad. It is a triad, with books of all kinds as their third partner. W.H. Auden once said, “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.” Perhaps throughout their life together, but particularly during the end of life book club months, mother and son allow the books they shared to read them.
The End Of Your Life Book Club read me as well. As I move into middle age, I am asking questions about the wisest way to use whatever time I have left in my life. No man or woman knows the hour, of course. But Will and Mary Anne’s club reminded me in vivid, lovely detail that to be a reader is not to hide from life. It is life.
And when I closed the cover of Will Schwalbe’s book, I felt that life vividly. It was an unexpected gift from an extraordinary book about the death – no, the life! – of someone I was glad to have known via its pages. Highly recommended.
Michelle Van Loon is a member of the Redbud Writers’ Guild. You can find her online at michellevanloon.com