The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

I’ve been interested in The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe’s memoir of his mother Mary Anne’s dying of pancreatic cancer and the books they read and discussed during that time, since I first heard about it. And since non-fiction has been some of my most successful audio “reading” lately, I downloaded it as soon as I spotted it in my library’s Overdrive catalogue.

But I was wary. The book blurb and rather unctuous quotes from reviews/other authors had some red flag words: lyrical, astonishing, inspiring. I’m especially wary of that last one, thanks in large part to Ridley’s discussions of why treating the disabled, ill or dying as “inspiration” for the able is problematic. Still, a book about the importance of books and reading appealed to me, so I decided to give it a try. It wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t find it lyrical, astonishing, or inspiring–at least not in the way I expected. And it was more enjoyable to me because of that.

The first note I made about this book in my pretty new reading journal was “kind of pedestrian.” Later I upgraded this to the kinder “conversational.” (I thought Jeff Harding’s narration perfectly suited the prose, though his Mary Anne voice was a bit falsetto and smarmy, and the accents he did for quotations from some of the books were distracting and . . . not very good). I peeked at Goodreads, and people who didn’t like this mostly thought it wasn’t emotional enough. But I ended up liking the understatement. Which made me realize that, at least for contemporary books, I almost always prefer emotional understatement and restraint; I like to decide for myself how to feel, and to fill in the emotional blanks. (I cut nineteenth-century literature more slack, but I tend to find its over the top moments interesting to analyze rather than loving them).

Mary Anne Schwalbe was obviously a pretty amazing woman, and Will’s pride in her comes through in the book. But she is mostly important here as a loving, beloved, but human and imperfect woman. Her warmth, her interest in others, her social justice work, reminded me of plenty of women I have known (especially through church). What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t feel she was held up as a saintly paragon, someone we were supposed to be inspired by. Rather, she and her family were just people who were making it through something hard and painful as best they could, because there was nothing else they could do. That is what I found inspiring, or comforting: the very ordinariness of their experience. The fact that they could do this with a reasonable amount of grace (Mary Anne, unlike her son, was a Christian, and I mean grace in that sense), without being super-special. I feel like I’m somehow diminishing Mary Anne by saying this, but I don’t mean to. This book turned out to be just what I needed this week, just as some of the books Mary Anne and Will read came to them at just the right moment.

So, those books. The book discussion turned out to be the least satisfying part of the End of Your Life Book Club. It’s quite superficial, really, a no-spoilers reading list in which the books provide a hook for Schwalbe’s meditations on mortality, faith, courage, gratitude–I’m tempted to say “the usual suspects.” The reading list is certainly not a bad one, but fairly predictable: mostly recent literary fiction, almost all of which I had heard of, some of which I have read. Really, the mother and son could have used almost any shared interest, like sports or movies, to spark discussion of these ideas. The statements about the importance of books felt kind of labored.

So, a book I found moving because it wasn’t the Deep, Inspirational, Lyrical Thoughts on Life and Death and Books I expected. But which ultimately won’t stay with me, I think.

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8 Responses to The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

  1. Erin Satie says:

    You’re reminding me a little bit of Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life–which is a sort of essay/narrative-non-fiction/memoir he wrote after his wife died. I really, really loved this book but part of what I loved, and one thing that stuck with me, when he gets to the last section when he’s really just talking about himself and the sensation of grief, is this passage where he describes going to and from the hospital and repeating to himself over and over, “It’s just the universe doing its stuff”. And there’s something about seeing all this eloquence that he’s deployed during the book disintegrate–no need to draw out the metaphor there, but I found it intensely moving.

    It’s pretty short! Read it in an afternoon (I did).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Meoskop tweeted this New York Times column by an oncologist in his 30s who has cancer. He talks about the difficulty of not knowing how long he has left, and learning to live with that, thinking to himself every day “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” That reminded me a bit of this book. To me these are ideas (mortality, endurance) that are banal and obvious in a way, but that we don’t really feel most of the time, and I do value a book that makes them real to me.

  2. Jessica says:

    This is the kind of book I avoid like the plague. It just sounds so terrible. One of the things I hate about books like this is that they pretend to be about something (books, a dying mother), but they are often just self-indulgent lackluster memoirs, with a hook.

    But it sounds like this one has some merits, not least some emotional restraint. So your review actually made me slightly curious.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I know what you mean about “memoir with a hook” (or excuse for writing a book). There were things I liked about this, but it did kind of feel like a book someone wrote because he wanted to write a book, if you know what I mean. There’s nothing in here that couldn’t have been talked over with friends or recorded in a journal instead of shared with the world. But then, that’s true of a lot of books–I just don’t have that book-writing impulse, so the urge to express yourself in this form isn’t entirely comprehensible to me.

      I did really wish it had been more about the books, but at least it wasn’t all about him and his feelings.

      • Ros says:

        Reading your review, I was almost tempted to try this right until you got to the bit about how there isn’t much about the books in there. I like the idea of a ‘conversation about books’ book that isn’t a Jane-Austen-Book-Club-book (which is basically the same genre as knitting group books).

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          When I realized that he wasn’t giving any spoilers for the books he talked about, I knew this wasn’t going to include any serious/in-depth book talk. The books pretty much provide thematic hooks.

          But have you read Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen Book Club? It is less women’s fictiony/knitting group than the movie (though I did enjoy the movie). Fowler is a pretty “weird” writer–by which I mean lots of her books have speculative fiction elements. JABC is by far her most conventional book, I think, and it’s not as conventional or tidy as you might think.

      • Ros says:

        Yes, I read it several years ago. I don’t remember much about it but I don’t remember enjoying it much. Couldn’t tell you why without reading it again.

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (3/5). You already know how this ends. | Taking on a World of Words

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