So, for her birthday, I gave a dear friend The Fault in Our Stars
, which as many of you know deals with a teenager diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now, I don’t know if she was trying to send me a subtle message, but for Christmas, Birgit seemed to fire back. Kind of like a poker play – I’ll see your dying person book, and I’ll raise you…this story is true, baby! Which is how I came into possession of The End of Your Life Book Club
. Definitely a book with a catchy title, but hardly likely to stimulate Christmas cheer. But then again, I suppose a terminally ill teenager isn’t exactly great birthday fodder either. :) Anyhoo, I finally got around to reading it, and can truly say I enjoyed this book immensely.
First, the books this mother and son duo read and discuss are not simply an entrée into the books themselves, but also into their lives and relationships. Author Will Schwalbe uses book titles as his chapter titles, and while the book is discussed, its themes are also tied into this family’s lives. For instance, the Marjorie Morningstar chapter describes the book and possibly why Mary Ann loves Herman Wouk’s work (try saying that 3 times fast). Like Marjorie Morningstar, Mary Ann had been a young Jewish woman with visions of being an actress that didn’t quite pan out. Also, another key character helps Jewish people flee the Nazis through the International Rescue Committee, an organization Mary Ann Schwalbe eventually worked with. Throughout the book, the themes presented in the book club choices help us learn more about Mary Ann, Will, their lives and their relationship, just as they helped them learn about each other.
Then, of course, there’s the story of a woman dying, the aspect of this book that had me initially apprehensive. Schwalbe doesn’t shy away from the emotional toll on all or the physical toll on his mother, but rather than frighten or repel me, Mary Ann Schwalbe’s story was full of inspiration and guidance. Her quiet dignity in the face of near-certain death and her determination that both she and her loved ones go on living their lives together and separately is remarkable. I read in awe as she encourages her daughter to take a job in Geneva and can only hope to be so graceful when my life is coming to a close. Additionally, while we all pray none of this will ever apply to us, this family’s negotiation through the medical and personal decisions is also instructive. Even an idea as simple as instituting a blog to keep concerned friends and family in the loop with the least burden possible on the family is one I appreciated.
Finally, there’s the list of books, short stories, and poetry that mother and son share during this time, 99.99% of which I’ve not read, but much of which I now have on my own To Read Bucket List, due to their conversations which whetted my appetite.
In the end, there’s nothing much I didn’t like about this book. Well, may have been one or two things. The first was more a touch of skepticism or maybe bewilderment. I simply could not grasp how a person so sick could read so much. I mean, when I have a simple cold, I don't want to see a book or even television. I simply cannot focus. So, I constantly caught myself wondering if she really could have accomplished all this reading. And my second issue, I am sure says more about me than the book. Mary Ann Schwalbe’s was a life well and truly lived – full of purpose and dedicated to the service of humanity and the betterment of this world. Just reading all she had accomplished in her time here exhausted me, brought out the green-eyed monster in me...and made me ashamed I don’t do more for others. Still, it’s all good. Shame helps no one. Getting kicked in the pants into action does. And Ms. Schwalbe’s life and this book have helped do that for me. In the end, whatever doubting thoughts I entertained did not take away from the fact that this is an inspirational read.