“What are you reading?” A question that Will Schwalbe had asked his book-loving mother for as long as he could remember. When Mary Anne Schwalbe is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the question turns into a device enabling them to talk about difficult subjects like mortality. As they wait in hospital outpatient clinics and attend chemotherapy sessions over almost two years, they discuss books they have swapped and reflect on the resonance each text has for their own lives.
These discussions are ostensibly the subject of Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, though in reality, the book is about a son’s love for a remarkable woman and the means by which he celebrates her life.
A picture emerges of a truly extraordinary woman. After an early career as an actress, she served as director of admissions for Harvard until she made a life-changing visit to a refugee camp in Thailand. Her experience there led her to co-found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. For years she campaigned relentlessly to bring the plight of refugees to public attention and to raise funds on their behalf, travelling herself at personal risk to the war zones of Afghanistan, Liberia and Sudan. In the final days of her life, she continued to fund raise on behalf of a cause very dear to her heart – starting a travelling library in Kabul.
Will Schwalbe punctuates a narrative of innumerable visits to hospitals with the back-story of his mother’s life and conversations which reveal a gentle and thoughtful woman with a deep-seated interest in people around her. In one episode we discover she has paid for expensive drugs needed by a woman she met only an hour earlier.
And then there are the conversations about the multitude of books they read together (the titles are all listed in the appendix as a helpful guide to those of us who really need to add to our to be read list). This is much lighter fare than Reading Lolita in Tehran. The book discussions are often rather perfunctory, they’re not meant to be learned commentaries on style, themes, etc but rather they exist purely as a means to an end, a way of reflecting on ‘lessons in life’ or introducing the more difficult subject of Mary Anne’s condition. A short discussion on David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter leads Mary Anne to reflect:
Thats one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something we can all talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.
while a reading of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, leads to a discussion about courage shown by missionaries and nuns who forsake homes, countries and children and then onto the courage needed to face pain and likely death. At times the ‘life lessons’ creep too close to the pedestrian advice found in the kind of self-help books to which I have a complete aversion but occasionally there is a well-observed comment about the ability of reading to bring people together.
After reading The Savage Detectives and Man Gone Down Will comments that:
these books showed us that we didn’t need to retreat or cocoon. They reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, could still share books and while reading these books we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and a son entering new worlds together.
The writing isn’t wonderful and the ending is – given the subject matter – inevitable. It’s not one of the most rewarding books I’ve read so far this year but there is a comment towards the end that struck a nerve.
We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not, each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.