This book is one hell of a journey; it is not always easy to read. Some parts are hysterically funny, and others are crushingly sad.
"The End of Your Life Book Club" details the final two years of Mary Ann Schwalbe, who died after battling metastatic pancreatic cancer. In the pantheon of cancers, pancreatic is one of the most deadly, especially once it spreads to other organs, the liver, in Mrs Schwalbe's case.
She is a woman unaccustomed to sitting still. She was an educator, a philanthropist, and a champion for human rights, especially for refugee women and children in war-torn nations. She thought nothing of flying to Thailand to work among the sick and wounded for six months. Her spirit was indomitable, and it remained so till the very end.
Author Will Schwalbe had a remarkable career in publishing, working for Scribner's, Hyperion, and other major imprints. He got his love of books from his mother.
The End of Your Life Book Club had two members: Will and his mother. It started almost by accident. Will took his mother to her chemotherapy sessions. While they waited to be called back--and during the hours the treatments took--the two talked about books. At first, they touched on what each other had been reading. As time progressed, they took it to a new level, both of them reading the same book, so that they could discuss it while the medicine dripped slowly into Mary Ann's veins.
Their discussions were interesting and very literate, but the true bliss in this book is how discussing a work of fiction could elicit a story from their real lives. Sometimes it was a shared family memory; other times, Mary Ann described one of her many adventures, or Will talked about authors he'd published, or his new dot-com business.
Over the two years they shared their club, we get a sense of how amazingly generous a spirit Mary Ann had, and the love she had for her husband and three grown children. She had a strong faith--a Presbyterian--and Will didn't. This didn't bother her too much. She mentioned with a laugh that God hears heathens' prayers too.
The whole family is remarkably educated, and notable for their achievements. She insists they live their lives unabated. At day's end, though, they all rally around their mother.
Mary Ann didn't let cancer slow her down much. She managed to travel, both domestically and abroad. She was adamant that she wanted to see her grandchildren grow up.
Sadly, the point came where chemotherapy no longer worked, and her tumors grew rampantly. Mary Ann never whined or lamented "WHY ME??" She plowed forward. She made funeral arrangements, wrote letters for her grandchildren to open when she was gone, and she put her affairs in order. She did NOT go gentle, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas.
When it was time to stop fighting, she accepted her fate, and made the most of her remaining time on earth. Even when she was confined to bed, she and Will talked books. She read until the day she slipped from consciousness, and she died, knowing her family would miss her, but they would be fine.
This is an extraordinary book. At its core, it tells the story of Will and Mary Ann's book club. Even if this book just covered their readings and literary discussions, it would be worth a read. (My favorite Book Club topic was the proffered theory that one could either like C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series, or J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit tales, but not both; and that while Lewis insisted the Narnia books were not Christian allegory, Tolkien claimed his were (Will was a Tolkien; his brother was a Lewis))
What Will Schwalbe does so brilliantly is use the book club as a framework upon which to sculpt his truly inspiring and amazing mother's life, and the family she loved and cherished, eccentricities and all.
Mary Ann Schwalbe was one of a kind: she was whip-smart and educated, generous, fearless, and yet always quick to speak to anybody: from the custodian to the Chief of Medicine, Mrs Schwalbe had a kind word for everyone.
This is not always an easy book. It doesn't dwell excessively on the gorier aspects of cancer, but it's always there, always in the background: we know that this remarkable woman is going to die from a horrible disease.
Even as the end approaches, Mary Ann Schwalbe had a surprise or two. Before she left Memorial Sloan-Kettering and entered Hospice home care, she had Will fill out a duplicate "Do Not Resuscitate" form. He penned in her name: Mary Anne Schwalbe. She gently corrected him: there was no "e" on the end of "Ann." His whole life, he'd thought her name was Mary Anne. It seemed a testament to her life force that her DNR form had a scratched-out letter.
Mary Ann's death is not what makes "The End of Your Life Book Club" so engrossing; it's her splendid, generous, exquisitely lived life.