Working at a bookstore does lead me to the occasional white lie. Nothing like covering up a crime or purposefully giving the wrong directions. No, I just pretend sometimes to have read books that I actually haven’t. There are so many books on our shelves, I can’t possibly read every one. (It’s been mentioned, behind our Bookwork’s counter, that having a second life, parallel to this one, dedicated solely to reading would be a wonderful thing.) But since my second self has not shone it’s self I’ll just have to make do with the hours I have in this life. Which brings us to the book of the hour, The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. A fabulous book that contains a woman who squeezes every last drop out of life and her son who captures their last years and tips his hat to a hearty helping of literary greats. Schwalbe, book lover and person who has worked in the book industry (a little more in depth than myself, but similar enough), admits to fudging his literary credentials a time or two (also like me) but says, “There’s a difference between casually fibbing to a bookseller and lying to your 73-year-old mother when you are accompanying her for treatments to slow the growth of a cancer that had already spread from her pancreas to her liver by the time it was diagnosed.”
In 2007, Mary Anne Schwalbe, Will’s mother, returned from one of her many philanthropic travels to the Middle East with what doctors first diagnosed as a rare case of hepatitis. It didn’t take long before that diagnosis was reevaluated and Mary Anne was told she had pancreatic cancer and six months to live. (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that Mary Anne had a bit more time than the doctors predicted, giving those who read The End of Your Life Book Club all the more chapters and anecdotes.) Although devastated by the news, the Schwalbes’ rally in support of their mother and grandmother, the woman who had been endlessly supportive in all of their lives and each of their endeavors. The family dynamic through out the whole book is so open and powerful, you can see what a wonderful job this strong woman did raising and maintaining her family. In part, this book is about a humble woman who accomplished great things in her life, her relationship with her family (her son, Will, especially) and her battle with cancer.
The other part of the book is about books and how each book named affected the author and his mother, not just in her final years but throughout her life. The “book club” the title promises begins when Will accompanies his mother to her cancer treatments and the two find themselves talking about the books they have been reading. These discussions evolve and become more powerful when the duo begin reading and sharing the same books. A selection of these tomes parade through End of Your Life as chapter titles and set the mood for each memory or event Schwalbe shares with us. Will describes his mother’s early life in the chapter about Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, a novel about a Jewish girl who dreams of becoming an actress, a path Mary Anne also dreamed of as a young girl. He revisits his own childhood while discussing The Hobbit and ties in the whole family with a comparison of the novel and The Chronicles of Narnia. Other books, such as Appointment in Samarra, Gilead and The Bite of the Mango are conversation pieces for the mortality and spirituality brought up in the book.
Mary Anne’s love of books was more than just a way for her son to connect to her. Will describes how consoling it could be to find her tackling a long book. “You had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolano or Thomas or Halberstam.” Granted, Mary Anne read the end of the book first, even before her diagnoses, but her desire to lose herself in a book was a comfort to her son. He, in turn, giving her story to us, shares that comfort and connection exponentially.
This is a book about a woman with cancer but it’s not a cancer book. You never forget that Mary Anne is dying and that cancer is at fault, but it’s not overly sappy and sentimental. Mary Anne was a remarkable woman and this book is as much about her accomplishments in life as it is about her acceptance of death. The End of Your Life Book Club is a wonderful eulogy to his mother sprinkled with literary references, a book written for people who love to read. It may also please readers to know that Schwalbe will be one of the many fantastic authors in this years Nantucket Book Festival.