In 2007, Will Schwalbe's dynamic mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is always fatal. This was a shock to Will's entire family, as Mary Anne had always been a true force of nature, a crusader for humanitarian rights all over the globe, once the director of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe, and truly an inspiration to everyone she encountered.
Mary Anne and her husband, Douglas, raised their three children with very strong principles of courtesy, faith, learning, and family, as well as a lifelong love of books. So it was not at all unusual when Will, sitting with his mother in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, asked Mary Anne, "What are you reading?" That conversation started the two on an incredible journey of reading, exploring new and favorite authors, and discussing topics far beyond the books they read.
As a voracious reader, I absolutely fell in love with this book on so many levels. The books that Will and Mary Anne read spanned many genresfiction, mysteries, poetry, plays, psychology, religion, philosophyand I was pleased that I had read a large number of the books they touched on, although I don't think it's necessary to have done so. As they read, Will recounted memories of his mother and her amazing life, as well as his childhood, interspersing them with the day-to-day challenges faced by a person living with "treatable but not curable" cancer.
"When you're with someone who is dying, you may need to celebrate the past, live the present, and mourn the future all at the same time," Will discovered at one point during this period of time. As he and his mother learned about new authors and revisited favorites from the past, he also learned a lot about his mother in the processwhat motivated her crusade for humanitarian rights, what drove her to make each person she encountered feel as if they were special, and how she felt about dealing with her illness.
Schwalbe, who was editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books before leaving to found Cookstr.com, is a fantastic writer who makes his mother a vivid presence in this book. You feel fortunate to be a part of their conversations, and the things they discussed definitely made me think. But of course, you know where the book will end, so there is always a tinge of melancholy as you follow the path of Mary Anne's illness and the remarkable strength she showed.
As I've said before, I'm a huge sap, so this book was a powerful, inspirational, and emotional one for me, but so wonderfully written that I read the entire book in a day. This book reinforced my love for life and the importance of telling those you care about how much you love them and how proud of them you are, but also it reinforced how much I love reading. How can you not fall in love with a book that celebrates the love of books and reading?
One quote from Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, which Will included in the book, really sums The End of Your Life Book Club up for me:
"Pass the time?" said the Queen. "Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds."I am grateful to Will Schwalbe for opening up his life and his mother's world in this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it definitely made me think.