A profoundly moving memoir of caregiving, mourning, and love between a mother and her son—and about the joy of reading, and the ways that joy is multiplied when we share it with others.
“A graceful, affecting testament to a mother and a life well lived.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade A
During her treatment for cancer, Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will spent many hours sitting in waiting rooms together. To pass the time, they would talk about the books they were reading. Once, by chance, they read the same book at the same time—and an informal book club of two was born. Through their wide-ranging reading, Will and Mary Anne—and we, their fellow readers—are reminded how books can be comforting, astonishing, and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us.
Sharing books he loved with his savvy New Yorker mom had always been a great pleasure for both mother and son, becoming especially poignant when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, at age 73. Schwalbe, founder of Cookstr.com and former editor-in-chief of Hyperion, along with his father and siblings, was blindsided by the news; his mother, Mary Ann Schwalbe, had been an indomitable crusader for human rights, once the director of admissions at Harvard, and a person of enormous energy and management skills. Could a book club be run by only two people? Schwalbe and his mother wondered as they waited together over many chemotherapy sessions at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. It didn't matter: "Books showed us that we didn't need to retreat or cocoon," he writes; they provided "much-needed ballast" during an emotionally tumultuous time when fear and uncertainty gripped them both as the dreaded disease ("not curable but treatable") progressed rapidly. From Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach to Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, William Trevor's Felicia's Journey to Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book to John Updike's My Father's Tears: the books they shared allowed them to speak honestly and thoughtfully, to get to know each other, ask big questions, and especially talk about death. With a refreshing forthrightness, and an excellent list of books included, this is an astonishing, pertinent, and wonderfully welcome work.
A lesson, a tribute, a worthwhile read
Your enjoyment of this book, will likely be directly related to both the relationship you have with your parents and whether or not you have lost a parent. For those that did not like this book and thought it self indulgent, I would be willing to bet that they have both of their parents still alive. I lost my father to a cancer that usually causes death in 9-12 months, though he lived 16 months from diagnosis. This is not a story about the books or the book club. The average reader will find that they have only read a couple of the books that Mary Anne and Will did. The story is the relationship between mother and son. It is about the unrecognized and even unwanted "gift" that a terminal illness gives us. Most of us go about not doing and saying the things we want to say or do because we can get to it later. Will understands that time with his mother in this world is limited and sets out to maximize every minute of it...and he does. Yes, the book is dry and a bit boring ocassionally, but overall a really good read. I found it cathartic to read that many of the sentiments and experiences of watching a parent actively dying was shared by someone else. The actual death of Mary Anne is addressed in just a couple of pages however. Will is abundantly proud of his mother; her character, accomplishments and selflessness inparticular. This book is a wonderful tribute.
More than a book club
I don't know what compelled me to read this book, except I love books and the idea of a book about a book club, albeit a two-member one, and one of those members is dying, rather intrigued me. Whatever my initial impulse, I couldn't be more grateful to Mr. Schwalbe and his willingness to share this remarkable story. And lest you have any misgivings, this story is not about the book club Will and his mother created, but rather the most loving and befitting tribute from a devoted son to his mother's legacy.
I will be gifting copies of this book to many because its message is too powerful to leave on the shelf.
A must read!
Fabulous book. My favorite of 2012!!!