Thursday, March 20, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: The End of Your Life Book Club

“What are you reading?”

That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis. Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less.

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close.

The End of Your Life Book Club
Schwalbe, Will (2012). [Genre: Memoir]
Source: Audiobook from my local library

The End of Your Life Book Club is the story of Will, a New York publisher who accidentally starts a two-person book club with his mother as he takes her to chemotherapy sessions; she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer (the treatment is to prolong her time, rather than cure). They are both avid readers and over two years the books they read bring their already close relationship even closer. They allow Will to find out more about his mother's past and lets them have conversations about her death that they wouldn't be able to have straight on. 

I love books-about-books at the best of times and this one is a stunner. The books Will and Mary-Anne read range from the popular (Alexander McCall Smith) to the more obscure (Eleanor Rathbone), but each one brings to light different aspects of their characters and relationship with each other. The story behind each choice and what they as two ultimately very different people got out of each one was fascinating to read.

That being said, the true hero of The End of Your Life Book Club is Mary-Anne and Will's treatment of her. She is a woman who has had an amazing life, accompanying a ground breaking career in admissions for Ivy League universities (in a time where most women didn't work, let alone in high-profile jobs) with high-profile lobbying for the plight of refugees and other charitable causes worldwide - at the time of her diagnosis, she is deeply involved in building libraries in war-torn Afghanistan. Will's narration of her life and illness brings her to life in a way that an ordinary memoir couldn't. She comes across as kind-hearted, caring and a 'pocket-rocket' (she uses her death to advocate among her friends for health-care reform). At the same time, she is not a saint and Will is careful to portray her faults in an honest and tender-hearted way. 

It is insinuated that Mary-Anne's relationship with her children, especially Will himself, has not always been easy. However their closeness and Will's respect for and ultimate pride in his mother is extremely touching. I loved their continual back and forth on spiritual matters - Mary-Anne's continual subtle attempts to convert her 'not interested in religion' son to her own Christian faith using books as her vehicle was amusing and well-portrayed. It could easily have come across as pushy, guilt-inducing and almost abusive on behalf of the mother, but Schwalbe does very well to portray it in a lighter (and likely more accurate to how he felt it as the receiver) way and emphasises that he took no offense and even enjoyed it. Indeed, he comes to truly appreciate his mother's faith and is thankful for the peace books such as 'Daily Strength for Daily Needs' gave Mary-Anne towards the end of her life. One of my favourite moments was Will's commitment to pray for his mother after a discussion about how she considers prayers from those who have no faith to be some of the most powerful.

I was also glad for Will's care in portraying the rest of his family and his mother's friends. Although it is a story about his relationship with his mother and their bookclub, he is careful to show the loving relationship between his mother and father, and his two other siblings. He acknowledges all of the people that cherished his mother and because of this, the story moves beyond just him and her to become a tender memoir about the negotiation of death and dying. 

Overall? 4.5/5 stars. A truly touching work of non-fiction that packs an emotional punch, I'd recommend it to any book lover.


  1. I've recently been into memoirs, and this sounds good! Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I love books about books too! I also love non-fiction which is actually a story about people and this sounds like a great example of that kind of book. Your review is one of several glowing reviews I've read of this book, so I think I'm going to add it to my tbr list now :)