Will Schwalbe: The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) A Memoir

End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club is one of those books that needs a review because it’s hard to tell from the blurb what it is about. Sure, it’s about books and the love for books and a beautiful friendship between a mother and son, but more than that it’s about an amazing woman and her terminal illness. People who pick this up may think, like I did, that it was to a large extent about books, which isn’t the case. Books are mentioned on every other page, but the largest part is about Schwalbe’s mother, her life and her battle with pancreatic cancer.

Will Schwalbe and his mother always loved to read and discuss books, but when she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has to undergo regular chemo therapy, they decide to use the time they spend together at the hospital discussing books they have both read and that’s how they start The End of Your Life Book Club. The beginning of each chapter is dedicated to the book they have been reading and the discussion they have. The book choices are varied and I loved reading about them. Continental DriftCrossing to Safety, The Painted Veil, Olive Kitteridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn,The Elegance of the Hedgehog are but a few books they read, discuss and enjoy.

After this usually brief paragraph about books, Schwalbe leads us directly to his main topic: his mother. His mother must have been a very courageous woman. She travelled from one hot spot to the next for the Women’s Refugee Committee. She helped refugees all over the world and put herself in great danger to do so. She was a fighter but at the same time she was a genuinely kind woman and to read about her and the love the people felt for her is quite beautiful.

What will not be everyone’s cup of tea is the detailed description of the therapies, the side effects and the battle to just live a few months longer. Pancreatic cancer is mostly terminal and most people don’t have much more than a few months after the diagnosis. Schwalbe’s mother was lucky, she lived a full two years. Years that she lived to the fullest, not missing any opportunity to enjoy life and do good. This is quite admirable. I liked her belief that you should never look away from what is bad in our world but always strive to do good.

I feel heartless writing this but the book did not work for me. I have no problem to read about terminal illness. I read the memoir written by Susan Sontag’s son and found it excellent. So that’s not the reason. And of course I love reading about books but in a way, I felt this memoir was too personal. There were too many details added that just didn’t mean anything to me, because it’s not my mother or someone I know. She ate this and liked it, she drank that and couldn’t swallow… She saw these friends and those grandchildren… There were just too many mundane and ordinary details that are only significant when you know a person. Since they wrote a blog about her illness to keep family and friends updated, I suspect, large portions of this book were based on those entries. This may be a reason why the writing was a bit bland.

I think this is a book which could be of great help if you have a friend or relative who has cancer, especially pancreatic cancer. It shows extremely well and in a lot of detail what can be done, what the side effects of some of the therapies are and when you have to decide to let go. As a book on cancer it’s great. As a book about one person’s mother, it’s too personal and as a book about books it is a let down. It says it’s about books and reading but they rather form a bracket around the rest.

Still I’ve discovered a few titles I didn’t know and would like to read:

Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine

Reynold Prices’s Feasting the Heart

Danyal Mueenuddin In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

There was also one book I know I will not be able to read and that is  Mariatu Kamara’s The Bite of the Mango (look it up and you’ll know why). Reading about it made me sick.

Have you read any of these?

36 thoughts on “Will Schwalbe: The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) A Memoir

  1. I can see why a writer would want to write about this, but I don’t want to read it. I think it’s touching and probably wonderful, but I knew two people who died of this last year, so I know I wouldn’t want to read it. For me, it’s morbid–which is a strange thing to say considering all the crime I read.

    • I understand you. I alos see why he wrote it but the thing is that the blurb mentiones his mother’s life will end but it doesn’t mention illness or cancer which is not OK. She could just mean she is very old and the book would be totally different. I thought it’s important that people should know and then decide whether they want to read this.

  2. As with Guy, I can see why one might write the book, but not why I would read it. I particularly wouldn’t want to read gruelling details of a stranger’s unpleasant though necessary course of treatment. Bad enough I may need to experience it directly either myself or through a loved one someday, I’ve no need to experience it vicariously.

    I hope the book finds a readership who get the inspiration the author intends from it, but I don’t see myself among that readership.

    • I really understand it and if I wasn’t someone who finishes almost every book, I might not have finished. It’s not a good marketing strategy to write a blurb that makes it sound like this was about books only. It will not attract the right readers. I know people who went through something like this or are going through it and would be really happy to be able to read it. And she was an amazing woman. The humanitarian work she did is admirable.

  3. I keep seeing this around and was wondering what it was about–to be honest the “end of your life” part of the title wasn’t a draw for me to pick it up, and I think based on your review that I am not the best audience for it either–maybe a little too much information for me as well. I can see where someone dealing with the illness or knowing someone going through it might find it helpful however. I like that she lived her life to the fullest and hope there was lots of that in those pages as well–that might make it more uplifting than it sounds.

    • For a book about cancer it wasn’t depressing. She tried to write about all the beautiful aspects but still, you can read between the lines and know that it’s just awful.
      I saw the title of course and it was obvious the mother would die or was dying but it’s not clear what from.
      There really is too much information and it’s repetitive. I think memoir works better for me when someone focusses more on himself than on another person. It’s more immediate. This felt like when some people tell you about people you’ve never heard of for hours and hours. Although I don’t know the author, it would have felt different to read more about him.

  4. Oh, that is a shame. The pancreatic cancer should have been on the blurb, but the marketing people knew that would be a turn-off for sure.
    Even if the blog posts were to update friends and relatives, none of them needed to hear the awful, intimate details either. The editor should have reined him in when they were turned into a memoir. With a woman as extraordinary as that, the focus should have been on HER, not the depressing minutiae of oncology.
    Great review, Caroline.

    • Thanks, Carole. Maybe I made it sound too awful, it was rather very repetitive and that is of no impact. After the fouth time reading that she absolutely wanted to attend this or that but was tired, sick or… it just didn’t do it. That’s what you do when you update people regularly. It should have been condensed. It’s too much of a mixed bag, another angle would have been better.

    • I think in your case it would touch you much more as it would allow you to some extent to relive everything.
      I see how that could work as an audio. It didn’t leave me cold either but I would have liked to know inadvnce what I’m going to read and there were too many details.

  5. Interesting book, Caroline. Will Schwalbe’s mother makes me think of my own mother – she didn’t have a terminal condition, but we used to discuss a lot about books and movies. The theme of the book – books, conversations, managing cancer – is quite interesting. It will probably be sad and touching too. In some ways the book reminds me of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ which is about a professor having conversations with his student during his last months. Will Schwalbe’s mother looks like an amazing person from your description. I don’t know why the publishers marketed it as a ‘book club’ book rather than as a ‘cancer’ book or as a ‘cancer + book club’ book. Because I think stories of people fighting with terminal conditions are inspiring and sometimes heartbreaking. (I read John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ earlier this year and loved it.) Sorry to know that you didn’t like the book that much. Thanks for this interesting review.

    • I checked out Mariatu Kamara’s ‘The Bite of the Mango’ at the link you have given. It looks quite depressing and tough to read. I don’t think I will be reading that.

    • I’m not even sure this wouldn’t find more readers if it was clearly marketed as a book about cancer. I also think he should have written a book about his mother only, just her and that would have been very interesting.
      It’s a amazing what she did.
      There were elements about books I enjoyed as well. What he wrote about Muriel Barbery for example makes me want to read this book next. I think I resent dodgy marketing.
      I think if you picked this up and knew in advance you’d like it much more. And the friendship between the two and how they read together would remind you, I’m sure.

  6. As to not liking a book like this, regardless of the subject, if a book is flawed as you allude to it is flawed. I would not call it heartless if you think that it did not work.

    Too bad that this did contain such short comings, it sound as if could have been so very compelling.

    • Sometimes it’s hard to admit a book didn’t work. But you’re right, I found it flawed. It could have been much better and I’m sure, a lot of people, like Dina, will like it very much.

  7. It’s a shame this one didn’t work out. Sounds like it has great promise and the idea of discussing books during such an ordeal is intriguing. The mother sounds like a wonderful woman.

  8. There’s quite a distinctive genre (or series of genres) around death and grief – there seem to be “major” examples of these fairly regularly now. Not something that appeals to me I must say. The ur-text seems to be Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

    As to your question Caroline: I’ve read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and would recommend it wholeheartedly.

    • I started Didion and must admit liked it som much that I put it aside. You’re right, of course, it has redefined or defined this genre and I think that’s why books like this one fall short.
      I love memoir but I want the writing to be something special too or I could just read a “true stories” book about people with cancer.
      Thatnks, for the comment on the book. It dsounded really good.

  9. I totally understand why you didn’t like it. My mom had cancer too but a book that talked so much about my mom ate this and didn’t like it and so on is a bit too personal. It’s better to write about the struggle.

    I remembered when King wrote a short inspired by his mom’s cancer…I really feel the sadness even though it was a bit vague not detail.

    • That’s exactly what I meant. I understand that you want to write about it but not that type of detail. It is too personal. I felt weird reading it. As if I was spying on her. From what he writes it’s obvious she wouldn’t have minded but I did, I thought it was too intimate.
      Which short story is that?

  10. I do get a little tired of the people in these stories always being quite so amazing, inspiring, outstanding and so on.

    Is it less tragic when someone who hasn’t dedicated their life to rescuing orphans in war-torn regions gets cancer? No, it isn’t. Is it easier to face an ugly, undignified and painful death if the most amazing thing you’ve done is still turn up to work the day after the office party? No, it’s not.

    These stories are always about extraordinary people, which is somehow supposed to make them inspiring. Is anything actually inspired though? There’s a cheap romanticism in all this which I find slightly distasteful.

    • That’s a very good point and must admit I hadn’t realized that while reading this memoir that detail got on my nerves. I wouldn’t have minded a book about her work but this mix was annoying. I’ve read a book a while ago, by a German author. He is well known, as he’s a journalist, but his mother wasn’t anyone “special”, she was just his mother. He wrote about his feelings, how it was for him to see her go like this and how much she meant to him and him alone and that was very touching and not sentimental at all. He turned it into an elegy and tied it to the place where she lived, a lively quarter in Munich. A really great book. The way he wrote about loss was meanigful for everyone.

  11. I’ve seen this book in stores and have been tempted to buy it, but I thought it was about reading and books, so thanks for the heads-up that it’s not just about that. Would this fall into the Misery Memoir category, I wonder? I don’t like reading such books because I don’t have any spare emotional energy to invest in reading about a stranger’s illness and death, even though I empathise with the author’s motive to write a tribute to his mother.

    • It’s far less about what it promises than about the illness. It did drag me down but more because of the frantic use of time. I’m a more meditative and contemlative person and to imagine myself being m terminally ill and fill my days until my last breath with activity – even reading – is depressing. I didn’t write about that in the review as it’s hard to convey what I mean.

  12. That’s not for me. I don’t want to read about cancer, death and all. Je ne peux pas m’empêcher de penser que c’est terriblement impudique. (I don’t know how to say that in English)

  13. I have this on my wish list but thought the main focus was on books, how books helped them cope with her illness, and not so much on the illness itself and on the small details of her day to day life. I may have to remove it from my list. I did add The Bite of the Mango though…

    • Some books do help them cope but they are not novels, more some advise books on how to talk to cancer patients. Every chpater begins with a book as every chapeter describes another phase of the teatment and they hold there book club in the hospital where the mother undergoes the chemo. I think if I had read this wanting to read a book about a cancer patient, I would have liked it but that way . . .

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