I’m cheating here. Normally I don’t blog about a book unless I finish it, and my bookmark is stuck on page 292 of 326 in The End of Your Life Book Club. I just couldn’t face the chapter entitled “My Father’s Tears.” But that’s a compliment to Will Schwalbe; he made me care about his family. And I did know all along where this book was going. I just couldn’t go all the way with it.
Here’s the premise: in 2007 the accomplished and hard-working Mary Anne Schwalbe is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, for which there is no cure yet. The End of Your Life Book Club is about the books that Mary Anne and her son Will read during the last years of her life. It’s not in the least bit sentimental, but it is searing in places. It’s about life, love, and literature. The rhythm of chemo and checkups and dwindling strength, mouth sores and sleepless nights, good days and bad is interspersed with Will and Mary Anne’s discussions of a startling array of books. Will, who was at the time editor in chief of Hyperion Books, writes in the short first chapter, “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”
Below, a random alphabetical slice from the list of books the two Schwalbes read and discussed during Mary Anne’s illness:
- Günter Grass, The Tin Drum
- The Haggadah
- David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter
- Susan Halpern, The Etiquette of Illness
- Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train; The Price of Salt; The Talented Mr. Ripley
- Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns
- John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
- Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories; Christopher and His Kind
- Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
They read Ken Follett and Alistair MacLean and Rohinton Mistry, Solzhenitsyn and Sendak. Not everything is analyzed in detail but everything is taken seriously, on its merits. These are people for whom reading is as important as oxygen.
But one of them is dying. So braided into the literary discussion is Schwalbe’s thoughtful account of his mother’s courage and stamina as well as the nuts and bolts of that terrible cancer trajectory. They discuss books; they discuss death. At the end of the last oncologist’s appointment, when she has decided to stop treatment, Mary Anne signs a new Do Not Resuscitate form. Then the doctor says, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?”
It’s not a very hopeful sign when your oncologist gives you a good-bye hug — but that only went through my mind later. It was a hug of genuine sweetness and affection: two people comforting each other, like sisters parting before one left on a long trip to a distant land.”
That’s where I stopped. Maybe you’ll get through to the end. After all, there aren’t that many books about the life-and-death power of reading.