You know from the beginning of Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club that his mother, Mary Anne, is dead. Pancreatic cancer. And you know from the beginning that books have played a major part of Will’s life (he’s the former senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books). And you know from the beginning that discussing books is how Mary Anne and Will spent much of their lives, but never as intensely as they did before (in waiting rooms, mostly) and during (when she was well enough) Mary Anne’s chemotherapy treatments.
(You also know from the beginning that Will’s family, though very present after Mary Anne is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, will not play a major role in this memoir, as their stories, Will says, belong to them and are not his to tell.)
Books traded, sometimes two at a time, and books by nightstands and books in handbags and on coffee tables. Books, first editions and tattered paperbacks. Books that fall off bookstore shelves (bad luck if you don’t buy said fallen book) and books that remain unread, even after promises are made to one day finish them. Books, interspersed with family history, Mary Anne’s Herculean charitable endeavors, and the kidnapping of and escape by journalist David Rohde.
The books Will and Mary Anne picked aren’t depressing, aren’t all about death, and range from the old (Little Women, and the Bible, kind of) to the new (or the then-new, like Home and Olive Kitteridge).
About two-thirds of The End of Your Life Book Club, if not a bit more, focuses on the miraculous (at least as far as pancreatic cancer goes) time Mary Anne gets (much longer than most diagnosed with pancreatic cancer), and her last few weeks, then days, then hours, go by quickly, maybe too quickly, as if Will didn’t want to linger on his mother’s final days. And we get little in the way of what happened next (save a bit about Mary Anne’s memorial service).
Even though death is the third character in this memoir, the book is not depressing, which is how Mary Anne wanted it. Live, she told her children. Live and celebrate all she got done while she was alive. Which Will has done.
Will provides, at the end of the book, an alphabetical list of the books that he and his mother read and/or discussed. A helpful reminder that words, if nothing else, always remain.
The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe. New York, New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2012. 352 pages. $25.00, hardcover.
William Henderson is never far from his phone, where he is often tweeting (@Avesdad) or blogging (hendersonhouseofcards.com). He is a frequent contributor to Thought Catalog, and has been published in The Rumpus, Mental Shoes, Revolution House, Specter, and Used Furniture Review, among others. He writes a bimonthly column for Hippocampus Magazine, is a regular contributor to Peripheral Surveys, and published his first chapbook, Edgeways, through NAP, in 2011.