Today, while enjoying a quiet, relaxing day at home alone, I finished up The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe. Although this book is a New York Times bestseller (or perhaps because of that fact), I hesitated to pick it up when it was being given so many accolades. I tend to prefer books that are a bit off the beaten path and it is rare that I really fall for a popular, bestseller type book. However, a couple weeks ago we headed to Burlington, VT via boat, to spend the weekend moored on the waterfront, browsing one of our favorite little cities. One of the best perks of these mini-vacations is the fabulous independently-owned bookstore off Church Street called Phoenix Books. This is one of my very favorite book stores, so I make a point to stop by and grab a new pile of books anytime I’m in the area.
This book is appealing on several levels. The first being that it is a book that talks about other books. Schwalbe’s focus is not only on the process of his mother dying and how she and her family deal with the inevitability of her impending absence in their day-to-day lives, but also on the books that they spend the remaining two years of her life reading. Will’s relationship with his mother has always involved books, as she is an avid bibliophile (evidenced by the books always present in her house or on her person as she travels about during her daily routine). Their book club is not a planned one, it is happenstance, as they begin to read the same books at the same time and confer about them while Will’s mother, Mary Ann, awaits her chemotherapy treatments. This memoir brilliantly depicts how books can comfort us during times of pain and allow us to discuss things that we would normally find very difficult subjects to broach. Will and his mother talk about many aspects of life during their informal book club, with death being just one of those topics.
Although the book is written from Will’s perspective, it is a wonderful testament to the amazing humanitarian and incredible career woman that Mary Ann was. I particularly loved how humble Mary Ann was. Despite raising three children while building a career as a prominent member of the college communities of Harvard and Radcliffe, she states that she was tired all of the time. Instead of making light of what she did, she notes that it was very difficult and time-consuming, also done at a time when it wasn’t the norm for women to do so. Her relationships with her adult children seem strong and those with her grandchildren seem to sustain her during her sickest periods. Mary Ann never lets pancreatic cancer or her illness define her and she continues to work in third-world countries, even when she becomes very ill. Some of her last emails and blog posts are pleas for her family and friends to make a difference in the world through health care reform, refugee work and various other causes close to her heart.
My tears became sobs at the end of the book, and I felt as though I had learned from this book, that my obsession with reading can be not only therapeutic for me…but something to share with those I love and a way for them to know me on a different level.