The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

There are some books out there that you need at a certain time in your life. They can be therapeutic and upsetting but show you just how important a book can be as an object that emotionally resonates with you. These books may be recommended when you are going through something or they may be found through researching yourself. That said they are not self help books, just books which chime in with you at that moment. Will Schwalbe’s ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is one such book, a book that seemed to mirror my life in many ways it was both a comfort and occasionally uncomfortable, overall though just amazing. A book which no doubt I will not be able to do justice to.

Two Roads Books, hardback, 2012, non-fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

One day when Will Schwalbe was taking his mother for one of her appointments at the Memorial Sloane- Kettering Cancer Centre he asked her ‘what are you reading?’ as they sit in the waiting room. Unbeknownst to them at the time this is the start of an unofficial, and not really ever totally acknowledged book group, book club that will see them reading and swapping the same books as one another during the hospital visits and small trips away over the months ahead. These books and their themes, characters and the questions they raise also occasionally being a way of mother and son talking to each other about the situation they find themselves in without ever having to spell everything out.

This might sound a little bit gloomy, and I will freely admit I did get very teary eyed in several parts of the book, yet this is actually one of the most heart warming and (I don’t want to use the word inspirational) uplifting books about cancer, death and grief that I have ever read – and probably one of the most important because it looks at it, confronting it, head on looking at the effects cancer has on the person with it and those around them. It is also very much a book about the power that books have and not just in these most emotional and distressing times but over someone’s whole life.

As much as this book is about Mary Anne’s condition and the books that she and Will read after her diagnosis, it is also the story of an incredible woman. Without her it would be very unlikely that there is now a library in Kabul, which the US Government has given $3 million towards, Afghanistan being one of her favourite places in the world. Mary Anne started off wanting to be an actress, then directing admissions for LAMDA in America, then working in education at Radcliffe and Harvard before turning to humanitarian work in Africa, Thailand, Afghanistan with refugees also setting up the Women’s Refugee Commission and looking at literature and libraries abroad. There is all of this and also her being a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother.

The whole theme of books being important at what is such a difficult time for Will and of course his mother all really chimed with me and what is going on with Gran at the moment. Though Gran doesn’t have pancreatic cancer, the tumour she has means the prognosis is similar. I am visiting whenever I can and the main thing that we both like to talk about it books. Face to face we have discussed books we have both read, authors we both wish we had and must do soon, topical things like if J.K. Rowling’s book is any good and if Mantel really should have won the Booker a second time. Every phone call, which is pretty much daily when I am not there, tends to have the question ‘what are you reading?’ thrown in at some point. Of course Will’s situation and mine are not the same, but this book made me feel like even though things will get hard and very upsetting what I have is very precious and so I am making the most out of it. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is very much a prelude to grief, if that makes sense, and is exactly where I am at mentally. Will Schwalbe felt like a friend, without that sounding weird, that I was discussing this all with and in a way has made it all feel a little bit better, if that is possible, about everything or maybe more comfortable. The power of the book.

I could literally have filled a post or two on all the wonderful quotes about the joys of reading and bookshops, debates about certain titles, cosy books and confronting and even the debate over e-reader vs. real paper books in your hands – as the book has all of these and more – the one I wanted to use though was the one that struck me the hardest and I will always keep with me as I have popped it in my book notes notebook…

‘And then something occurred to me. “You know: the thing about our book club is that we’ve really been in it all our lives.”
 Mom agreed but pointed out that she’d been doing the same but with others too – talking about books with my sister and brother and some of her friends. “I guess we’re all in it together, “ she said. And I couldn’t help but smile at the other meaning of the phrase. 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.”

I want everyone I know to read this book. It doesn’t matter if you have had close contact with cancer, death or grief, this book will chime with you because you love books – which is why you have found yourself here I am guessing. ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ is touching without ever being saccharine, confronting and honest without ever being emotionally manipulative. It also celebrates life and highlights that we are part of each other’s ‘life-book-club’s’ through the discussions we have at book groups, on blogs, to our friends and family, or randomly on public transport about books and the power that they have. It has also left me with a list of books to go off and read as long as my arm. One of my favourite books of the year and one I will be turning to again and again.

Who else has read ‘The End of Your Life Book Club’ and what did you think? Did you come away wanting to be Schwalbe’s new best friend too? I am tempted to write to him just about books. Which books have you read at just the right point in your life be it sad, difficult or happy? I would love to hear your experiences with books that have done that.



Filed under Books of 2012, Review, Two Roads Books, Will Schwalbe

32 responses to “The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

  1. gaskella

    I don’t need to read this one… My Mum and I always swapped books and discussed them with each other – she had time to read far more books than I, and always left post-it notes on them with comments for me. When her cancer returned, chemo made her too tired to read much at all, or to be read to even. I inherited all her books, and am still finding notes in them for me, which keeps our own ‘End of your life book club’ alive in a way.

  2. This was a lovely post. Much love to you and your nan xxx

  3. I’m so glad you are able to spend time with your Gran. I lost my mother to cancer the year I graduated from college and one (of many) regrets I have is that we never got to discuss books as adults. (I’m not sure if that means I should read this one or not!)

    As for reading books at the right time, not long after I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, a novel of sixteen interwoven stories about four Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-raised daughters in San Francisco. The plot is set in motion when one of the mothers dies, leaving her daughter, Jing-mei, to piece together the true story of her life and, in a sense, carry out her last wishes. My mother grew up fairly poor in Nazi-occupied France and did not really talk about her life when I was younger, so I felt a similar knowledge gap to the main character.

    As such, The Joy Luck Club was very comforting because it reveals how difficult it is to truly know and understand one’s parents at any time, if only because we are often content with who they are now and how they present themselves to us. As children, we don’t concern ourselves with who they were before. In my case, I’m glad my time working on my doctorate in France, and later as a historian, has meant that I have gotten close to my family there and learned a lot more about her life and circumstances.

    And I ended up in San Francisco (although I like to think that was influenced by more than just a book)..

    • I think read this book to be honest. It might be upsetting, but more in a good way than anything – it helped me knowing Will had been through something that I am going to go through, and have been through with my Granddad already.

      Lovely story about The Joy Luck Club, I have not read that book and I think I should have really.

  4. Russell Gray

    One of my favorite books of 2012! At the end I was in tears, but so happy inside. I loved it.

    Did you know that the author will be at Booktopia Vermont with Ann and Michael at BOTNS?? Worth a trip across the pond?

  5. Susan in TX

    This was my favorite non-fiction book this year. I can’t sing its praises enough, and like you, want everybody I know to read it!

  6. I have been wanting to read this book every since I first heard of it a few months ago (i love memoirs and books about books), but after reading one amazing review after another, I want to read it even more!

    I’m so sorry that you are going through a difficult time with your Gran – it’s wonderful that you are visiting so often and that the two of you have your common interest in books and reading to keep you close. It is the same with my mother and I – we love to share books and discuss what we’ve been reading – she even travels from 3 1/2 hours away to come to my neighborhood book group with me!

    After reading your review, I want to read this book more than ever.


    Book By Book

    • I urge you to get a copy of this Sue, I really do.

      I was with Gran this weekend just gone and we were nattering away about books again, I was weirdly saying to her how I wanted to come to her next book club, apparently they read books I have read on occasion and use this blog as a reading group discussion guide which is lovely.

  7. What a moving review, Simon. I already wanted to read this book, though I’m pretty certain it will have me in tears. Lots of love to you and your gran.

  8. Definitely in my sights this one. What a gift you and your Gran have, to be able to share a common love of books and stories, make the most of your time together as you are and thanks for sharing it all with us too.

    • A pleasure Claire, I do think it shows (both in the book and in my situation with Gran now) the power that books can have in the most distressing times and what a boost they can be to people.

  9. You keep making me want to read more books! This is brilliant, however my to be read list grows by the day.
    Also, after reading your Susan Hill post, I was thinking about getting Howard’s End is on the Landing, and then my dad bought it for me for Christmas without me ever mentioning it to him. So cool that he knows my book taste so well!

  10. Read about this on Bibliophile by the Sea. Diane was also impressed by this book. Sounds a very good read.

  11. Susan E

    Very nice review. I enjoyed this book too and getting to know about Will and his mother through their shared love of reading. When I was done, I reread Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, which is one of the books they read together, and was wowed, so I look forward to reading some of the other books they shared.

    • I have been tempted to read Wallace Stegner, alas it is not one that my local library has or any others in the area, so I will have to hunt it down elsewhere. The list of books I want to read from this book is staggering, yet part of what I loved about the book too.

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  13. KateG

    What a wonderful review! It is amazing how personal this book is for so many of us. When I finished it ( after my initial reluctance as I really don’t feel the need to read “grief and loss” memoirs), I was so glad and really wanted to talk to Will Shwalbe as it seemed he completely understood what I had gone through with my mom. This was my favorite of 2012 as it so completely spoke to me.

    • I think there are a lot more of us that go through these sort of things than we think Kate. Not that it makes the pain or heartbreak any less great knowing that, but it does make you feel less alone and indeed is why a book like this is so important. Thank you for your comment and sorry to hear about your mother.

  14. Delyn Williams

    I’m not a blogger as such – too old! – but love reading blogs. After reading your review, I bought this book and absolutely loved it. In fact, I talk about it to someone every day! I even went back to the Guardian archives to read her obit. and the lovely photo. of her brought her even more to life.
    Thank you so much for such a recommendation.

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