Tag Archives: Death

Book Review: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (3/5). You already know how this ends.

11 Aug

My book club has been on a memoir kick the past two months. I’m not complaining, I love a good memoir, but I’ve been craving fiction! That might have influenced how I felt about this book.

Cover image via Goodreads.com

Cover image via Goodreads.com

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Mary Anne Schwalbe was never one to sit still. She was darting around the world, trying to bring aid to orphans in Oceania or building a school in Afghanistan. Being sick was never an issue; until that illness was Pancreatic cancer, but even then, it was just a slow-down. Will uses the time when she must slow down and sit for chemotherapy to talk to his mother about their shared love of books. Throughout the year and more that his mother fought cancer, Will and Mary Ann bond over books and characters; talking about ones that inspired them and ones they’ve been meaning to read for ages and ages.

“We’re all in the end-of-your-life book-club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.”

-Will Schwalbe

This was one of those books where on page one, you know how it’s going to end. The more I read (or listened to), the less I wanted it to end. I was in love with Mary Anne. She reminded me of my mother, mixed with my aunt and my mother-in-law with a dash of spunk. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the books they read, but her character and the loving way Will portrayed her kept me going forward.

Schwalbe gave his family and friends very realistic portrayals. Even the characters with smaller roles, such as his partner, David, had distinct personalities which leapt right off the page. I think his mother’s portrayal was an act of love because she was darling.

Mary Anne was definitely my favorite character. Her spunk and vigor were contagious and it got me thinking about what I would want to do with the limited time left to a pancreatic cancer patient. Strangely enough (or maybe appropriately), I would want to read, too. I have a long list of books I want to read before I die and I think I’d take the time to do it. Mary Anne wanted her legacy to be the Afghan Library but I think she’ll be equally remembered for how Will portrayed her in this book and her love of books.

I found the characters (it feels strange to call people in a memoir a character, doesn’t it?) hard to relate to. I think this is why I didn’t like the book more. I found a lot of their book choices unappealing to me and it almost made me feel like I like ‘lesser’ literature. Besides the children’s books, I’d read (only) the following:

  • Dave Eggers, What is the What?
  • William Golding, Lord of the Flies
  • Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
  • John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
  • Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  • Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father
  • Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

I used the appendix of the book but can’t recall exactly the ones they read together and those only mentioned. I’ve tried to include here the ones actually read. Considering that the appendix is six pages of entries, you can understand how my list of seven seems weak. I’ve never lived on the East Coast and I wonder if the culture of that side of the country is what kept me from the characters, but I felt a separation from their ‘normal’ that kept me from loving the book.

Will Schwalbe Image from the book's website.

Will Schwalbe
Image from the book’s website.

I loved the flashbacks Will took to his childhood. It was interesting what moments he remembered and left him questioning so many years later. My love of turtles attached me to the story about his large stuffed turtle. I also loved the anecdotes about his mom forgetting to read to him one night and how she reacted when the siblings broke out laughing during the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. I hope that I can think of moments in my childhood like this and remember to ask my mom what they meant before it’s too late.

It was hard to read about Mary Anne’s final days. Toward the end, I kept pausing the audiobook because I didn’t want to hear it and my husband said, “You know what’s coming, just finish it.” So I did. And it was rough and gritty, but it was real. There was nothing sugar-coated about her final days and I really appreciated that in Schwalbe’s writing.

The overall message I got was to follow my passions. Mary Anne didn’t let cancer get in the way of her passions; family, charity, and books. In fact, she let those guide her in her final days and helped her block out everything else. Maybe we all need a reminder to focus on our passions before it’s too late.

Writer’s Takeaway: Schwalbe’s characterization of his mother was excellent. I felt like I knew her, or at least knew ten different people she reminded me of. He wrote with love and I think that’s something fiction writers need to do as well; we need to love our characters like they’re our mothers. I can think of one character of mine that needs some love now; I have to find something lovable about her so she can jump off the page like Mary Anne did.

For the record, Will is pretty active on Twitter. I got this tweet from him when doing my customary #FF. I got a few more I’ll share in my Book Club Reflection.

I loved the character, but found it hard to connect with the lifestyle of the players. Three out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Will Schwalbe: The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) A Memoir | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat