Book Club Reflection: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

28 Aug

This is almost a month late, but I’m really excited to share my book club’s discussion of The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. Doesn’t it seem like an appropriate title for a book club selection? What do book clubs love more than books about book clubs? Probably cupcakes, but that’s about it.

Christopher Beha’s NYT review of the book says that,

…the book club serves here as an excuse for a loving celebration of a mother by a son.

This is a good summary of what the book’s about. It’s not about books; it’s about how we communicate about books. It’s about how we can show people we love them and read at the same time. As a book freak, this is a great message.

Because I like quotes, let’s jump into another from that same review.

To paraphrase Joan Didion, a writer is always ratting somebody out. A great memoirist, even one moved primarily by love and devotion, must possess a certain amount of ruthlessness — toward himself if no one else.

Didion actually said ‘selling’ someone out, but you get the idea. The later part of this quote is all Beha. I’ve seen this sentiment in a lot of memoirs we’ve read in this book club. If you want to tell the truth, sometimes it’s not pretty. We want to only show the best of those we love; the great things they did and the nice person they were. But there were days that person didn’t wear makeup or was grumpy or just needed to cry. Will had to show the readers that side of his mother, even if he didn’t want to. And even more importantly, he had to show when he was not at his best. When he was struggling to cope with his mother’s illness or just needed to be left alone. We can’t all be beautiful 100% of the time.

It was hard for Will to tell his mother he loved her. He would say he was proud of her, but struggled with the word ‘love.’ He also never addressed that he would miss her when she passed. I think these are two very difficult sentiments to express and I wish he could have done it and told us about it because I think his mother would have liked to hear it. They had a very formal relationship, where love wasn’t something  people talked about very much and was supposed to ‘just exist’ between people without being talked about. I wish they could have overcome this toward the end.

One thing in the novel that struck me was when Will asked his mother to explain all of his childhood memories: Turtle, forgetting to read to him, and her anger on Christmas Eve. This struck me because I think all of us would like to question some things we remember or think we remember from our childhoods. We have to make sure we do it before there’s not a chance to do it. I asked the other members of my book club about it, and they offered up a few reasons why he would ask. If it was a nagging feeling that Will wanted to get rid of, he knew he had to do it then. Maybe he thought his memory of the event was different and wanted to see her view on the same moment. We have one member who learned in her adult years that her childhood cat who had ‘run away’ was actually driven into the country and left there because her brother was allergic. Sometimes we can only remember what we’re told.

Mary Anne encouraged Will to quit his job numerous times. We wondered if she would have still done this if she’d not been dying. Was it her projecting an end-of-life carpe diem, or was this Mary Anne all the time? By the end of the book, we think that this was how Mary Anne approached life and she would have done this in 100% health. But the question is if Will would have listened to her in health, or if he needed his mother to be at the end of her rope to listen to such extreme advice.

A few of our members saw Mary Anne as a control freak, which had not occurred to me before, but I understand. She liked to dictate schedules and coordinate things, such as the Afghan library or what her grandchildren would do on vacation. Not knowing how something as major as her own life would end probably made her very anxious and made her want to control things around her even more. Even though she was controlling, she was also very accepting of things and people as they came to her. She found a calling to mission work from letters she received out of the blue and she was very accepting of her gay children when they came out to her. We thought this was a wonderful balance for someone to strike in their life. This continues to feed into my impression that Mary Anne was a truly wonderful person.

One of the things Mary Anne was very controlling of was the blog she and Will wrote on. She wrote the pieces and controlled the content. In some ways, she treated Will like a small kid, incapable of writing the content on his own. After talking about it, we concluded that she really wanted to write the piece herself, but writing it in the third person made it less painful. Instead of saying “I don’t feel well,” she could say, “Mary Anne doesn’t feel well.” It seems less like complaining and less self-centered. In the end, it didn’t bother us and it made Mary Anne feel better, which is the important thing.

We felt that Mary Anne was a woman who always had an agenda: a purpose. We tried to figure out what her purpose was during her time with Will before she died. We don’t think she wanted to give too much away about herself to her son. She was still a bit reserved about some of her personal life. More than that, we think she was trying to set a good example for Will and her other children. She wanted them to learn from her example of generosity. She may have been trying to impress her religious beliefs on Will as well, but I don’t think that this was her main goal. She wanted him to see that you have to give to get in return

Mary Anne almost seemed larger than life. She seemed to know so many people and be very close to a large percentage of them. It seemed a little outlandish to me. A few of our members are in education or have a relative who is and reassured me that when you’re in that field, you do know a ton of people. But that many famous and accomplished people? Well, some people are larger than life. And with her background in theater, it’s likely.

This book reminded us a bit of another book we read last month, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan. Like Cahalan’s story, Mary Anne’s illness reminded us how fortunate those with health care are. Without that access to care and means to pay for it, Mary Anne would have been much more uncomfortable for longer.

We talked about how Will wasn’t present when his mother died. As much as he knew it was coming, he left and took a shower. Maybe he wasn’t sure when it would come, but maybe he didn’t want to be there when it happened. The more we talked about it, the more we thought that Mary Anne would have wanted him to go home and take care of himself, even if just for a bit. His mother would have wanted him to leave. She was looking out for him and wanted the best for him.

One of the books referenced in this work was The Etiquette of Illness by Susan P. Halper which we thought gave Will very sound advice for how to deal with his mother’s treatment. We felt that the nurse practitioner in the story, Nessa was a good example of this. It was helpful for her to be there, even if she wasn’t talking. That was a good lesson for Will to learn as well.

One of the questions we had was about Will’s family after his mother passed. We almost felt like his mother was training him to keep the family together after she was gone. It reminded us of Nan in Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian. Fortunately, Will is active on Twitter and I asked him about this.

One of the things Will and his mother debate is reading a physical book versus an eBook. A lot of us see the attraction of books; you can lend them, you can sell them to a store, and you can buy a book someone has already loved. Second hand books are like treasures. I’m a huge believer in second-hand books and I’ll frequently put my name in books as they leave me so that maybe someone might see it later and wonder about me. Another form of book I’m a huge fan of is the audiobook. One of our members listened to an audiobook read by Will and said it was great to be able to hear the love in his voice as he talked about his mother.

We liked that they talked about books that were important to them. This can say a lot about a person. Another thing we talked about was how they read. We all felt that they were really fast readers; finishing an entire book on an airplane ride! It bothered Will that his mother would read the end first. Only one person in our club reads that way. She said she can enjoy it more when she knows where a story is going and will read the end before she’s fifty pages into a book. It helps her enjoy it, much like Mary Anne.

There’s a quote on page 41 about choices that we discussed. Will had just finished reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner in this scene.

We found ourselves discussing the three kinds of fateful choices that exist in the two books: the ones characters make knowing that they can never be undone; the ones they make thinking they can but learn they can’t; and the ones they make thinking they can’t and only later come to understand, when it’s too late, when “nothing can be undone,” that they could have.

We wondered if there were any choices Mary Anne made in the book that could have been undone. We think she believed that there were things that couldn’t be ‘unsaid’ once they were out of your mouth, but there wasn’t much in her story that was a choice. The only thing we could think of was how quickly her illness was attributed to a virus she picked up abroad. If that had been undone, her disease would have been caught earlier.

We asked who this book should be recommended to. I have a friend whose mother is suffering from cancer, but has recovered well. I wonder what she’d make of it. My mother-in-law is also a cancer survivor who has a best friend and fellow book lover she leaned on in those hard times. She might enjoy this as well. We agreed that avid readers might like the message; that a good story can transport you, connect you with other people, and be a good friend when you need it. We had one member comment that it was hard for her to read this after a good friend had died of cancer. I think there’s a balance of those with no relation to a cancer death and those with too much to be able to enjoy this book.

The sad thing is that by the time you’ve read this, the group has already met again. I’m a terrible person. It also means that I’m in grad school! Ahhh! I hope to keep updating as frequently.

Until next time, write on.

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