For all of you reading this review who live in a community that supports a wide variety of book clubs, Schwalbe’s title The End of Your Life Book Club may be a bit jarring if not flat-out confusing. What? A book club specifically organized to read books about dying? Or maybe a book club whose membership is made up of readers who are dying? Close, but not quite.
Schwalbe’s book club, which begins when his 73 year-old mother is diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, has a membership of two, Schwalbe himself and his mother. I can almost hear the groans of disbelief. How depressing! But it’s not. Of course, especially with this book, you don’t need to read the ending (something Mrs. Schwalbe unapologetically does with every book she reads) to know what happens – Mary Anne Schwalbe does not survive the cancer. As much as this story is about the books that Mary Anne and her son Will read and discuss in the last year-plus of her life, the key word is “life.” This is a book about living, not just with cancer, but with books and the stories found between their covers, the stories found in our discussions of books and the stories of our own that seem to emerge from reading books.
Books become a bridge between mother and son; their relationship, already close, intensifies as they begin to discuss topics they have seldom touched before, both personal and general (death fitting in both categories). Within these conversations we learn of the powerful role Schwalbe’s mother plays in his life. Long-held secrets are revealed and others alluded to but kept buried. Despite her diminutive size, she is a woman to be reckoned with.
Mary Anne Schwalbe’s past is formidable, including theatre, academics, family and church. And if that weren’t enough, later in life, after volunteering to work under the most wretched conditions at an orphanage in Thailand, she becomes an activist, organizer and volunteer for refugee organizations in almost every war-torn country in the world.
Mother and son begin a blog so their family and friends (who number in the hundreds) can be kept abreast of her health. Although the blog is ostensibly authored by Will, it is Mary Anne who does the writing. Just as many novels have their subplots, so does Schwalbe’s memoir of his mother’s dying. Reading has always been a connective tissue in the life of this remarkable family and Will’s book is testimony to both his family’s past with his mother in it and to its future in her absence.
The End of Your Life Book Club has its uneven moments and scenes I wish had been enlarged upon; and although I wish Schwalbe had been more forthcoming about his siblings and his father, it’s still well-worth the read. And here’s the neat part: for those of you who belong to a book club, all of the authors and titles discussed in the book are contained in the appendix. The appendix is a rich source for any book club. – Sunny Solomon