Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with cancer. She had a close relationship with her husband and her three children so each family member would take turns offering care and companionship during her treatment sessions. When it was Will's turn, he casually asked his mom what she was reading. That was the beginning of the two-person book club between Will and his mother which carried on until her death nearly two years later. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to their book selection. They read popular fiction and spiritual devotionals, classics and serious literature, short stories and a few plays. Through their discussions, the reader gains an understand of their profound love for each other and the power of literature to unite people.
As I contemplate the opening lines of The End of Your Life Book Club, I see that the author was setting his readers up for an unexpected treat and an explanation how out of two bad things can come something good:
We were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering's outpatient care center. The coffee isn't so good, and the hot chocolate is worse. But if, as Mom and I discovered, you push the "mocha" button, you see how two not-very-good things can come together to make something quite delicious. (p. 1)Will's mom has cancer. Bad thing #1 (coffee.) She has to spend a lot of time at the hospital. Bad thing #2 (hot chocolate.) But because they enjoy talking about books together, Will and Mary Anne are able to enjoy one aspect of their time together (mocha.) Throughout their two year book club we find that is true over and over. Even when she is so sick, Mary Anne wants to talk about books with her son and through the books she is able to communicate her dreams, goals, regrets, plans, schemes, triumphs, and longings.
At the end Will is able to reflect back on the wonderful way that the book club helped him to cope with losing his mother. (There's that mocha, again.)
Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they're how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years and dozens of books and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who are very close to each other to begin with, and even after one of them has died. (p. 326)The book is organized in chapters named for one of the books the Schwalbes read for their book club. Most of the books I haven't read (but I want to read them now!) but a few of the selections are books I have enjoyed in the past: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery are among them. It was like revisiting old friends reading about their discussions about books I have read and loved in the past. Most of the books on their reading list I have heard of but now I am really curious to try: Marjorie Morningstar, The Lizard Cage, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist were a few that caught my fancy. But really, if truth be told, I want to read them all. One book which I will surely buy first is a 100+-year-old devotional called Daily Strength for Daily Needs. It became the special book for Mary Anne as she found her physical strength waning as the disease took hold.
On an interesting, personal side note, I gave this book to my own mom a few years ago. I found it on the sale shelf at the public library and thought it sounded like a book my mom would like. She did like it but commented that it wasn't as much about the books as she thought it would be. Really it is mostly about life and living, about Will's mother and her extraordinary life.
We will be discussing this book in December in one of my book clubs. I know it will generate a fabulous discussion. I've also decided to start a book club within the book club generating a lending library with the titles of the books that Will and his mom read together at the end of her life on earth.
We'll see how it goes, but I have high hopes because, as Will Schwalbe says,
[Mom] never wavered from her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose, is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you can take part in the human conversation. (p. 326)Everyone in a book club knows that the books start us talking and thinking and feeling, they are the catalyst for the discussions on all kinds of topics and ultimately for forging strong and rewarding friendships.
Like books about books and don't mind crying a few tears? I recommend The End of Your Life Book Club.