THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB is several books in one. It is the memoir of an adult son, and a biography of his aging and terminally ill mother. It is also an unofficial guidebook on how to live well and die well, and a book that celebrates the written word.
The author, Will Schwalbe, grew up in a home where books were loved and appreciated. His mother read bedtime stories to all three children, a different story for each child. Both Mary Anne and her husband were avid readers, and they surrounded their offspring with books. It comes as no surprise, then, that Will spent over 20 years in the publishing industry. As the book begins, Mary Anne has been diagnosed recently with a stubborn form of hepatitis, but her symptoms, which mimic hepatitis, instead turn out to be advanced pancreatic cancer. The family is informed that the cancer is treatable but not curable. In other words, terminal. This unwelcome news is obviously difficult for everyone to absorb. The future quickly becomes a hazy question mark, full of worries and uncertainties, as the Schwalbe family adjusts to their new normal.
Mary Anne begins receiving outpatient chemotherapy at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Now she is spending hours upon hours attached to an IV drip as the toxic chemicals slowly enter her body. The doctors have promised that the chemotherapy will buy her some time, though how much time is uncertain. Will often accompanies Mary Anne to her lengthy and tiresome chemotherapy appointments, and a natural question --- What are you reading? --- becomes a source of poignant conversations between Will and Mary Anne.
Although the coffee and hot chocolate in the vending machine are unappealing, mother and son quickly learn that by selecting the mocha button, the resultant combination of both beverages makes a delicious drink; mocha becomes the beverage of choice for the pair. Soon Mary Anne and Will are swapping books and having lengthy philosophical conversations about recent reads. Mary Anne has a reading quirk. She always reads the ending of a book first because she cannot wait to learn what happens. Will can discuss any book that Mary Anne has not yet read without spoiling the ending because he knows she will read the ending first anyway. Through book discussions, they broach topics that might be too personal or painful otherwise. After reading THE ETIQUETTE OF ILLNESS: What to Say When You Can't Find the Words, by Susan Halpern, Will learns when to ask "How are you feeling?" and when to ask instead "Do you want me to ask you how you're feeling?"
After Mary Anne's diagnosis, her new mantra becomes: Make plans and cancel them. She does some traveling overseas while she is still able and spends hours on the phone and at meetings trying to arrange funding for a library in Kabul. She attends family dinners and continues to visit art museums and go to concerts whenever she can. Always in the back of her mind is the possibility that she might not feel well enough to participate in an event, but her strong will and determination keep her going, amazing and encouraging her family.
Although readers of THE LAST LECTURE may find some similarities to THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB, Will's book provides an in-depth look at a loving family supporting their beloved Mary Anne, a son's deep affection and abiding respect for his mother, and an appreciation for all things literary. I was deeply touched by Will's writing and believe that readers of this book will be as well.
Reviewed by Carole Turner