Review of End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
This book is a memoir. When I started the book, I thought it was regular literary fiction and absolutely hated it for the first quarter of the book. I had to put the book down and look it up since I didn’t understand why it was recommended to me. But after finding out the true nature of the story, I then understood the nonliterary aspect of the writing and enjoyed it for what it was: an excellent account of the author and his dying mother using books to communicate and know each other better.
In this book, the author deals with his mother dying of cancer by reading books with her. Along the way, usually during treatments and doctor visits, they talk about the books they read together. While the subject matter may sound dark, the mother approaches her situation with a positive energy and lots of love from her family. Schwalbe extols the life of his mother, who made many, many friends as well as her work with volunteer organizations.
Memoirs are not my cup of tea. I have read the occasional memoir and generally find them irritating and poorly written. This book, though, has a clear, well-spoken quality to it. The author has excellent pace and good plot structure. The people in the story are fleshed out with charming backstories, and conversations feel authentic.
What this book lacks is a literary spark, and the language isn’t especially beautiful or evocative either. But does a memoir like this really need a literary spark? Is it important that the settings are minimal, that the characters are a little too nice, that the language is adequate but not poetic? Schwalbe is a journalist, and it felt like a journalist wrote it. Everything is described well and accurately, just not poetically. The author is like the best house painter you’ve ever met, but you wouldn’t buy a painting of a house from him.
I bring this up because as a reader of fiction, and with a family very different from his, I don’t think I got much out of this book. The best part, for me, was the love they had for the books, and the way these books brought them together. On the other hand, I found myself intimidated by this overly-wonderful family. They are ambitious, exceptional, positive people. I am not, and their life and what they take for granted is very different from mine, and I constantly felt this difference as I read it.
I would gladly recommend this book to anyone going through a similar situation. For a fiction reader, however, I wouldn’t recommend it. And as for book discussion groups, I didn’t find much here to talk about. It would be difficult to delve into or argue with his mom’s opinions because of the circumstances. There’s no themes beyond the very obvious ones. The best a group could do is talk about their own stories this book would inevitably bring up.