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The End of Your Life Book Club (Vintage)
by Will Schwalbe

Published: 2013-06-04
Paperback : 352 pages
69 members reading this now
105 clubs reading this now
47 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 27 of 30 members

An Entertainment Weekly and BookPage Best Book of the Year

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 ...

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Introduction

An Entertainment Weekly and BookPage Best Book of the Year

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. A profoundly moving memoir of caregiving, mourning, and love—The End of Your Life Book Club is also about the joy of reading, and the ways that joy is multiplied when we share it with others.

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Discussion Questions

1. Does this book have a central theme? What is it?

2. Why does Mary Anne always read a book’s ending first? How does this reflect her character?

3. Early in the book, Will writes, “I wanted to learn more about my mother’s life and the choices she’d made, so I often steered the conversation there. She had an agenda of her own, as she almost always did. It took me some time, and some help, to figure it out.” (page 6) What was Mary Anne’s agenda?

4. Mary Anne underlined a passage in Seventy Verses on Emptiness, which resonated with Will: “Permanent is not; impermanent is not; a self is not; not a self [is not]; clean is not; not clean is not; happy is not; suffering is not.” Why did this strike both of them as significant? What do you think it means?

5. Throughout the book, Will talks about books as symbols and sources of hope. How has reading books served a similar function for you?

6. While reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, Will and Mary Anne discuss three kinds of fateful choices: “the ones characters make knowing that they can never be undone; the ones they make thinking they can but learn they can’t; and the ones they make thinking they can’t and only later come to understand, when it’s too late, when ‘nothing can be undone,’ that they could have.” (page 41) What kind of choices did Mary Anne make during her cancer treatment? Did she or Will make any of the third type?

7. Mary Anne especially liked a passage from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: “When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?” (page 96) Why do you think this moved her so much? What did it mean to Will?

8. How does religious belief help Mary Anne? How do you think it might have helped Will?

9. Mary Anne doesn’t believe her travels to war-torn countries were brave: “I wanted to go to all those places, so how could that be brave? The people I’m talking about, they did things they didn’t want to do because they felt they had to, or because they thought it was the right thing to do.” (page 167) In what ways is Mary Anne brave during her cancer treatments? Does she ever come to think of herself as brave?

10. Will is amazed by his mother’s ability to continue her efforts to fund the library in Afghanistan even while facing a death sentence, until he realizes that “she used her emotions to motivate her and help her concentrate. The emphasis for her was always on doing what needed to be done. I had to learn this lesson while she was still there to teach me.” (page 194) Did Will learn? What makes you think so?

11. Why did Mary Anne become so intent on certain things happening: Obama’s election, David Rohde’s safe return? Will talks about his own “magical thinking” several times in the book—what form do you think Mary Anne’s took?

12. “We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.” (page 281) How did this realization affect Will’s final days with his mom?

13. After she dies, Will looks at Mary Anne’s copy of Daily Strength for Daily Needs, next to the bed. He believes this quote from John Ruskin was the last thing his mother ever read: “If you do not wish for His kingdom, don’t pray for it. But if you do, you must do more than pray for it; you must work for it.” (page 321) How did Mary Anne work for it throughout her life? Do you think Will found solace in this passage?

14. Several times in the book, Will talks about eBooks versus their physical counterparts. Why does he prefer one to the other? Does Mary Anne agree? If you read this book on an eReader, how do you think it affected your experience?

15. Which of the books discussed by Will and Mary Anne have you read? Which do you most want to read?

Suggested by Members

Did you write books and authors down as you read?
by lizblair (see profile) 12/03/16

What ways or with whom have you connected by sharing books or interests in a similar way to Will and his mother?
Mary Anne always read the end of a book first - do you read the end first, or do you always start from the beginning? What impacts your decision? Do you reread?
by mbell7 (see profile) 01/17/14

Discuss which books on the list your Book Group was intrigued by, and will read at future meetings.
by hmgrogan (see profile) 04/25/13

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

A Conversation with Will Schwalbe

This is a book about a book club of two: you and your mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe. How did it begin?

For as long as I can remember, I talked about books with my mother. "What are you reading?" is a question we constantly asked each other. We were especially prone to talk about books when we were anxious or stressed - or when there was a difficult subject we wanted to tackle obliquely. So, after Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it was natural that we would chat about books whenever we spoke. But it wasn't until the first time that I accompanied Mom to chemo that we began to realize that if we read the same books at roughly the same time, then we had formed a kind of book club. In some ways, we'd always had our own two-person book club, but it took Mom's illness to make us realize that. I've come to feel that whenever you share a book with someone, and talk about it, you're creating a little book club. And these little book clubs can sustain us over the course of a short period of time - or a lifetime.

You write in the book that "reading isn't the opposite of doing, it's the opposite of dying." How did this become clear to you in the course of your two-person book club?

People who aren't readers are prone to say things like, "Why don't you put down that book and do something." Over the course of the book club, it became clearer and clearer to me that reading is doing something. When we were reading, we were engaging with the world - learning, growing, travelling. We went to Khaled Hosseini's Afghanistan, and Michael Thomas's Brooklyn, and Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana. We met Jhumpa Lahiri's new immigrants and Alan Bennett's Queen of England. We learned about Irene Nemirovsky's refugees and Ishmael Beah's child soldiers. And when we did all this, we not only felt — but were - totally alive.

In what ways did your book club bring you closer together or allow you to get to know your mother even better? Did it allow you to talk about issues or topics that you might not otherwise have had occasion to discuss?

Books opened the door onto so many topics. When we talked about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, we talked about faith and religion. Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety gave my mother a way to talk about my father, and how she thought he would fare after she was gone. Marjorie Morningstar, one of my mother's favorite books, gave me an opening to ask her questions about her young adulthood. And we talked about so much more. Mary Oliver's poems sparked a discussion about the world of nature around us, and how often we don't pay enough attention to it. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil led to a discussion about courage. Victor LaValle's Big Machine prompted a conversation about second chances: who deserved them and who didn't. When we talked about Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, we talked about gratitude and how the smallest gesture can make all the difference in a life. Near the end, I realized that I not only got to know Mom better - but I got to meet a slightly different person as well, a fellow reader who happened to be my mother. I think that's one of the most powerful things books do: They allow us to meet on equal ground and to see different sides of ourselves and each other as we explore big issues and new worlds together.

Is there a book that makes you think of her the most? If you could share another book with her today, what would it be and why?

After Mom was diagnosed, a friend gave her a copy of a book called Daily Strength for Daily Needs by Mary Wilder Tileston. It was originally published in 1884. Mom's copy was an edition published in 1934, by coincidence the year she was born. Each page has one or two Bible quotes at the top, usually a scrap of poetry (almost always religious) in the middle, and one or two additional quotes at the bottom. This book was Mom's constant companion - she kept it by her bedside or with her, her place marked by a colorful embroidered bookmark she'd brought back from one of the refugee camps she'd visited. It wasn't just the writing but the physical book itself that gave her comfort - the fact that this very book had provided inspiration to people before her and would do so for people after. This is the book that makes me think of her the most.

And if I could share another book with her? That would be whatever we had heard about or read about today. Mom would have loved to discuss the latest books by writers we loved, like John Irving and Toni Morrison. Or something we noticed in the weekend's book reviews, like I Am An Executioner by Rajesh Parameswaran [A Summer 2012 Discover pick]. Mom and I had wonderful conversations about classics that we read and re-read; but what I loved most was discovering new books and new authors together.

What have reactions been to the idea of the book?

When I first told friends that I was writing the book, some said, "Oh that's terrific - that will give you closure." But I found myself saying to them that I didn't want closure - in fact, I wanted the opposite: I wanted to continue the conversation.

After you finish a great book, like David Copperfield, that's not the last time you think or talk about David or Little Emily. Those characters stay with you all your life. I talk to David Copperfield all the time. And somewhat similarly, I talk to my mother too, in all sorts of moments, including when I'm thinking about a book she loved.

But of course, it's all quite complicated. Whenever I'm experiencing grief, I'm also remembering — which gives me great pleasure. And when I'm remembering, I'm also experiencing grief. One of the things Mom taught me was this: "You don't have to have one emotion at a time."

When people hear about the book, it often prompts them to talk about their own experiences. I'm finding that a lot of people really want to talk about death and dying - and really want to remember and tell stories about people they loved who aren't alive anymore. And even when expressing their own fears and sadness, or sharing painful memories, there's often great joy in remembering and sharing.

Who have you discovered lately?

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. I can't stop talking or thinking about this novel, set, mostly, in Saigon in the 1960s. It's the kind of historical novel that first made me love fiction, chronicling decades in the lives of its complex, fascinating, very flawed characters. This novel gave me a new perspective on what we call the Vietnam War — and also on war in general. Lam portrays a community that tries to stay apart from the surrounding conflict, and, as a result, is drawn into the core of it. The prose, the descriptions, the observations, and the twists of plot astonished me — but more than anything, I'll remember the characters, and how their lives were altered by the chances they took and by the chaos around them.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by nellysteele (see profile) 03/10/20

 
by Alison8641 (see profile) 04/06/18

 
  "End of your life bookclub is just ok."by lizblair (see profile) 12/03/16

The end of your book club is ok. It starts off with a bounce in its step and then leads into just list of events and lists. Like a to do list. As I write this it occurs to me that this might have been... (read more)

 
  "The End of your Life Book Club"by carolfleming (see profile) 04/22/16

Our group gave it a 2.5 rating. We felt Will had written this book to deal with his grief. Everyone wanted to know more about his mother.

 
by Hardcover (see profile) 04/21/16

 
by Traci13 (see profile) 04/06/16

 
by mneuburger (see profile) 01/30/16

 
by nmsanders34488 (see profile) 01/27/16

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