Wednesday 27 March 2013

End Of Your Life Book Club - My Review

I have mixed feelings about this book. The main thing I struggled with the most was all the hype around this book. There are thousands of web sites referring to it, there are book clubs around it, there are Facebook pages.  I only wanted to know about the characters and how books played a part in their life. I don't need to know about how many people around the world are affected by it.

Overall I enjoyed the story. I was looking forward to reading it and it took quite awhile to get my copy from the library.  I think the story without all the hype online and in the media would have been enough for word of mouth to get many people to read it.
Now I am a bit cynical about families such as this one. I wasn't raised in a Walton's family environment. This family is like Walton's on speed and with lots of money. Everyone loves each other, they are all productive, people who everyone loves. They are all very high achievers. They live in Boston enjoying a very affluent lifestyle. They didn't come from Walton's mountain in the deep south during the depression.

It is the story of Will Schwalbe's mother's journey through her cancer treatment until her ultimate death. Will is the oldest child and the family has always been completely immersed in books.  His father was an important person in the music business, his mother worked as an admissions officer at Radcliffe university for many years but she was better known for the work she did for refugees and raising money for a large donated library in Afghanistan.  She was very important in the charity world doing a great deal of work for Afghans and Pakistanis. Her children, all of them high achievers, were in awe of her, she is described very much as a super woman.

Will has one sister and one brother which don't get much of a look in through out this book but the author acknowledges this in the beginning dedication.  It is very much a story about him and his mother told both in flashbacks and as they sat together during her chemotherapy sessions. I felt this book was more of a therapeutic exercise for him to come to terms with her loss than anything that really focused on what they gained from the huge number of books they read. Others though may feel quite differently.

Books are mentioned on every page. The importance of them, the history of them within their family and during their childhood, even describing the last words she read upon her death.

The family, to me are described as being just very very............perfect.  I wanted a few books thrown across the room once in awhile in frustration as they all dealt with this very insidious disease taking the life of their beloved mother.  I felt Will really white washed the entire story just a little bit too much.

But then, being an American Australian I can say this, the Americans love their conquer all attitude to everything and a bout with cancer resulting in death is no different. It almost felt to me like , 'Hey it's okay she had cancer. It's a terrible thing, I'll miss her terribly but we shared the best times of our life together, we read millions of books and we have bonded now once and for all and it's all good. We have looked destruction in the face and risen above it."   I know this is not what the book is meant to be about but it was how it felt to me at times. I got irritated. I would have preferred a lot more balance between the difficult times and the times they felt they were on top of things.
Mary Ann Schwalbe photo from Guardian Magazine

I wanted a bit more reality about a two year bout of painful, horrible cancer invading  a body to not all be so wonderful because it brings the family together.  No doubt it did bring the family together and I really felt for all of them but sometimes the story seemed to be a bit of a podium with which Will could spontaneously combust about his life and his relationship to his mother, and the part he played in her dying.

Now if the reader can get through all of that there is a wonderful story underneath.  The relationship they had with each other and the list of books was quite lovely much of the time.  I suppose I was feeling a bit jealous of this family because I don't ever remember discussing books with anyone in my family and yet I spent a tremendous amount of time reading in my youth. I would have killed for someone to have asked me what I was reading, why I chose what I did, how I felt about all the books that were a part of my life when the rest of my family never seemed to read.  I am sure my own background tainted the way I viewed this story.

When Will's mother died her obituary appeared in the Guardian yet I am hard pressed to find her name (Mary Ann Schwalbe) because she is only really referred to as 'Mom".

The books they talked about together were really the most interesting part of the book to me but it didn't happen often enough. Will  did redeem himself when he described one of his favourite books being Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf.  I too read my little copy of Ferdinand hundreds, if not thousands of times when very young.  I loved Ferdinand and how he only wanted to sit in the field smelling the flowers and enjoying the sunshine instead of going into town to participate in the bullfights as all his macho friends wanted.

There are some conversations about the stories they shared in their own personal book group but they don't really go into it too deeply.  She does mention at one point how many times she's read and reread The Wings of the Dove (that comment is for you Alex). She also said she had yet to meet anyone who read CS Lewis and Tolkien and enjoyed both of them equally as young people. She firmly believed one is either a Lewis fan or a Tokien fan but not both.

At the end of the book are several pages with the names of every book mentioned in the tale listed. This appears to have turned into a reading challenge for people throughout the internet community.  I will not get roped into this list, as much as I love a good book list, I did enjoy it but then closed the book.

Would I recommend this book?  I think that is a hard one.  I wouldn't reread it. I didn't get that much out of it personally yet when I read other reviews about it on the web there is no end to how many people absolutely raved about it.  So I am very sure I am in the minority but I am quite a cynical person and many readers are not. I would say if you've been wanting to read it by all means please do so because you will probably really like it especially if you like a good old fashioned, saccharin feel good type of story.

Mrs. Schwalbe's obituary from the Guardian can be read. here .


  1. I know how you feel. I was also somewhat envious of the close, loving relationships described and a tad sceptical. But I enjoyed the read nonetheless for the books and for the graceful depiction of death and grief. The literary style often left me cold, but there was no denying that it was written with a warm heart and good intentions.

    1. I would agree with that completely. The son will did have a deep love for his mother. She did so much in her life, she was an amazing woman.

  2. The initial reviews/hype were all so positive and glowing, but now I'm seeing more and more posts reflecting your thoughts. I'm curious about the book, but I'll probably borrow rather than buy.

    1. Yes you're right.I think it is simply a book you pick up, enjoy the parts you like especially about the books listed and it didn't seem like something one would get too emotionally involved in. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Pam, what an interesting post, full of good points. I read this without realizing quite how much hype surrounds it, and without knowing too much about it. I enjoyed it as a portrait of a pretty amazing woman, and for the book discussions, though my reading tastes are very different from theirs (and I won't be taking on their lists as a reading challenge!)

  4. I must have been under a rock because I did not realise there had been hype surrounding this book! It sounds like there are good and bad points to it. A very interesting review, I look forward to reading it now to see how I react to it.


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