No sappiness allowed at The End of Your Life Book Club



The End of Your Life Book Club has one of the ickiest premises for a book I've seen in a long time. Will Schwalbe's mother, Mary Anne, is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just a few months to live. In order to pass the time at her chemo treatments, Will and Mary Anne start a two-person book club, choosing a new title to discuss every month. You don't have to be like Mary Anne, who incorrigibly reads the end of books first, to figure out where this is going.

Just to compound the ickiness, Mary Anne is a really good person, a tireless advocate for refugees, a regular churchgoer, the sort of reader who is looking to learn from the books she reads so she can understand the world better, not only loved by her husband and children but liked by them.

Actually, she probably would have hated the sappy—and, fortunately, unwritten—version of The End of Your Life Book Club. The book Will Schwalbe actually wrote is a fitting tribute to her, both brisk and thoughtful and dwelling not on the prospect of her death, but on the life she continued to live after her cancer diagnosis.

"I didn't want to be sappy," Schwalbe says in a phone interview. "For the last two years, she spent most of her time living. She was involved with a lot of organizations. She went to plays and exhibits. She didn't have a sappy last two years. If [the book] were sappy, it wouldn't have been honest."

The evolution of the book club was almost accidental. One day in the waiting room of Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, Mary Anne and Will started talking about the books they were reading. Mary Anne raved about Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, a book that had happened to have been in Will's "to-read" pile for years. He finally bit the bullet and read it.

Will Schwalbe
  • theendofyourlifebookclub
  • Will Schwalbe
"It's about friendship, two couples who are friends all their lives," Schwalbe explains. "It's a very moving theme. Mom and I were blessed to have tons of friends, many of them shared. Friendship is not as explored in books as it is in life. There's a certain kind of book you usually read when you're between 14 and 20, where you get totally absorbed. Crossing to Safety was one of the pantheon. For us both to come across a book like that that we hadn't read, it was a sign of hopefulness, that there were amazing things left."

Their reading list over the two years is long and wide-ranging, from T.S. Eliot to Marjorie Morningstar to The Savage Detectives. (The full list, printed in an appendix in the back, is six pages long.) The Schwalbes like most of them, or at least find something of value. Mary Anne's favorite is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead: She not only likes the book, she likes how it gets atheist Will to start thinking about faith. Will's is his old childhood favorite, The Hobbit. "There's a lot of wisdom in it," he says. "All books at the right moment can give you the wisdom you need. It doesn't have to be Rumi. It could be The Hobbit or P.G. Wodehouse. They give us what we need when we needed them." This, by the way, is a very Mary Anne-like sentiment.

Their conversations are rigorous: Mary Anne is a former English teacher and, at the beginning of the book, Will is the editor-in-chief at Hyperion Books, though he quits partway through.

Schwalbe confines the summaries of their discussions to greater themes in the books, not to particulars of plot—he is the considerate sort of reader who doesn't want to spoil a book for others who haven't discovered it yet.

The only book they fail to discuss is Thomas Mann's Joseph and his Brothers, which Mary Anne plows through in a fit of Ritalin-induced concentration. Will, deprived of Ritalin, still hasn't finished it, though he's made several honest attempts.

Schwalbe didn't plan to write a memoir about their book club. The idea came to him after Mary Anne's death. "My friends said, 'You need closure,'" he says. "But I didn't want closure. I wanted to continue our conversation. When I read a book now, I think of her, what we talked about."

As for The End of Your Life Book Club, 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.

"She 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."

Will Schwalbe will be discussing The End of Your Life Book Club on Mon 6/24 at 7 PM at Cook Park Library (413 N. Milwaukee, Libertyville) and Tue 6/25 at 11 AM at Froggy's French Cafe (306 Green Bay, Highwood) and at 7 PM at Highland Park Public Library (494 Laurel, Highland Park). He recommends you read Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.

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