The day after Book Club…I know will wonders never cease! Ta-da-dah…I was not the only one who felt the way I did about this book. There were the regular lovers of all things non-fiction, but surprisingly I had a couple of supporters. One woman suggested that she would have loved a book on the actual events of Mary Anne’s life, her time spent with the refugees, as a dean of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe as well as her time in Africa. I loved that idea! Another woman loved the details about Mary Anne while finding the book itself dry and heavy. So without further ado…
The woman who chose The End of Your Life Book Club is a dear friend of mine whom I love. After the first couple of chapters I knew why she chose this book! Mary Anne Schwalbe is a worldly version of my friend. They have many things in common and a few things totally not in common (the cancer one of them, thank goodness). At heart they are both kind, active women who want to do good in the world.
My friend might not have worked in a refugee camp but she’s done many things for the betterment of her fellow human beings. Much like Mary, my friend lives a busy life full of people who love her and whom she makes time for in her life. To say I held affection for Mary Anne due to my friend is putting it mildly.
I even really loved the idea behind the attempt. My mom and I bond over movies. We might not always talk openly about deep philosophical ideas but many times you touch on those ideas within the framework of a story. That’s the power of story and I appreciated the sentiment Will was trying to capture with his book.
I also love Mary Anne’s philosophy that we don’t know if we want to talk to a person until we’ve gotten to know them, asked them questions and really delved into their life. She had so many friends because she knew the questions to ask and then made the effort to ask them.
Unfortunately, I felt like I was sitting around waiting for my friend / Mary Anne to die slowly of pancreatic cancer.
I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in… Yup, it was that depressing. No, it wasn’t sappy or saccharine. Yes, the topic many times was books and how much Will and Mary Anne loved specific ones they read together. I even recognized two or three of them. In the end, I was happy for Mary Anne and Will that her prognosis of two to six months was proven wrong. Two whole years for her to live life – no one could ask for more.
What I wasn’t so happy about… it also prolonged my pain!
PAIN #1 – Narrative
Will’s narrative style is more suited to an instruction manual than a memoir.
While I understand that a memoir is a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation, we didn’t need a blow-by-blow of each doctor visit. I get it that the “book club” was held at the doctors while Mary Anne got chemotherapy but the minutiae of cancer was not what we the readers thought we’d be getting. We thought the minutiae of books and how they came to bear on the situation of cancer was what we were getting.
His narrative is very dry. I’ll put it in context for you: for every 100 words I read, at most 10 of them were meaningful in any way. On top of this he came across as an extremely pretentious man. While I don’t know for certain if he is a self-important individual without meeting him I do know his attitude was severely annoying throughout the book. I get it that his family has lived a life of privilege and that it is their motivation for their activism. I just felt my face rubbed in it.
PAIN #2 – Attitude
Will and Mary Anne’s privileged lifestyle contrasted to their causes did not cast them in a positive light. It smacked of self-aggrandizing.
There wasn’t a humble moment in the book. In fact, when Will tried to portray Mary Anne as humble her attitude irritated me instead. When one is in an airport and one has cancer we use the wheelchairs. I have seen hundreds of wheelchairs sitting idle waiting for cancer travelers and to have Mary Anne pass them up for some unknown people in need smacked of arrogance not a humble nature. It did not portray his mother in the light he’d hoped.
Will’s words about what he feels should be taken away from The End of Your Life Book Club casts a distinct light on his attitude about his readers: “Schwalbe thinks Mary Anne would have been embarrassed to be the central character of a book, but he thinks she would have liked it, if only because it introduces some of the causes that were most important to her and perpetuates her philosophy of reading.” The entire time I was reading about Will and Mary Anne I felt like I was being told I’m not doing enough for the world. Yet I don’t jet off to England or summer in Florida. As people who do perhaps they need to evaluate their lifestyle.
PAIN #3 – The Title
Perhaps this should have been first, but the fact we were deceived about the topics under discussion were the least of the troubles.
Again Will’s own words sheds some light on the true purpose of the book: “She [Mary Anne] didn’t think of reading as escape,” Schwalbe says. “She looked to books as a way to open herself up to the world. Readers are doers; reading connects you to the world. The biggest misconception of readers is that they have their heads in the clouds. That’s not true at all. There’s a connection between reading and activism.”
This memoir is called The End of Your Life Book Club. Let’s break that down into expectations.We expect it to focus on books that are worth reading before the end of your life. While we did get all the nitty-gritty details of a person’s experiences trying to fight pancreatic cancer I did not feel like I explored how a person feels at the end of their life. I also didn’t get a comprehensive book club discussion. An Activist’s End of Your Life Book Club, while a clunkier title is much more apropos a title for what was explored in the book: activism. I feel like I can run out and run a drive for refugees today!
PAIN #4 – The Books
Book suggestions are like liquid gold, they are rich in worthwhile opinions and flow all around us filling in the cracks. Except when they aren’t.
I did not expect classics. I did not expect I’d love or know every book. I did expect for these books to have wide appeal for people whose lives are ending. I did expect there to be some titles that everyone should read at some point before they die, not because they cast a light on dark things happening in the world but because they speak to who we are as a human being. Not one of these would I recommend to a living person let alone a dying one.
Despite this being my opinion I wrote a short list of books I would investigate further to see if I could even attempt to read them:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: A French book that sounded really fascinating about a concierge and a 12-year-old girl until I read this review.
The Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara: Another memoir about a girl who is tortured and loses her hands until the writing was called out here. While she liked the story, it was hard to read.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky: This sounds like fascinating snapshots of war reactions by a woman who was really there. While the reviews lean toward the positive the quotes really read as bizarre to me.
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki: As a lover of Japanese culture with a bit of that heritage myself this sounds wonderful. This review waxed on about it…doesn’t it sounds a lot more pretentious than you’d expect?
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: I really wanted to like this enough to read it but it goes to show you a perfect example of what this list is made up of – books that highlight the dark for people who only live in the light.
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey is an unusual mystery and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is about women set in Afghanistan. They are also the only ones I’d even consider reading. Am I going to rush out to read them? Nope. I don’t have enough confidence in the taste level.
I’m not trying to knock these books. I haven’t read them! I’m not even saying there isn’t a good book in the bunch – there very well might be. I am pointing out that this list is not for people dying nor are they books one simply has to read before one dies. These are the book suggestions I was advertised to expect.
(((Here’s a complete list of the books Will recommends that he and Mary Anne discuss over the course of The End of Your Life Book Club.)))
PAIN #5 – Pointless
No book is a waste if I can take a thought from its pages that resonates on some level.
About 40 pages into the book Will talks about Susan Halpern’s The Etiquette of Illness and a list of things he took from the book when dealing with a sick person. Oh, I thought, that’s excellent! If this is all I take from the book then it will be well worth the effort of reading it.
#1 “Ask: Do you feel like talking about how you feel?”
#2 “Don’t ask if there’s anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it’s not intrusive, just do them.”
#3 “You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.”
In passing, late into the book, Will mentions he no longer asks “Do you feel like talking about how you feel?” Too much effort. I was astounded that he would admit to such an attitude. We are told by Will, here is a passage / thought / message from the books we read together as my mother was dying and then the passage / thought / message is discarded as too much of a bother. I feel like that is the symptomatic problem with the book. These are a collection of passing thoughts that don’t really amount to much.
As for my opinion, this is the best part of the book!! I’m storing this beautiful little question away for any circumstance where I feel uncomfortable asking how a person feels (sick or just in a bad situation), because we don’t always feel like saying more.
For another perspective on this cancer exploration, book-hopping read watch this video from a fan’s point of view:
Mary Anne Schwalbe was a remarkable lady. This is a book championing why she was so remarkable. If you knew Mary Anne then you will love this book. If you are an activist or from a privileged lifestyle you will love this book. If you are a fan of even half the books they’ve read you will love this book. Otherwise I think The End of Your Life Book Club was a literary scam. So no. No, I don’t feel like talking about how I feel!