Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

From each of our individual perspectives, our lives matter.  No matter our station in life, our economic or monetary or social or education attainments, we all face certain significant events.  Death is certainly foremost among them.  Whether you’re rich or poor, famous or just an anonymous soul on the edge of the road, your death matters, and the deaths of those important to you matter.  When death comes, the universe shakes.  Certain recent memoirs, such as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2006) or Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir (Ecco, 2011), have sought to talk about death in a way that conveys the authors’ individual perspectives in a way a more general audience can appreciate and empathize with.  Oates and Didion are good writers.  The talents of Didion and Oates as artists, as accomplished writers, enable them to work the subject thoroughly without giving into to self-absorption, self-pity.  (One might argue that self-absorption is Didion’s métier).

I am struggling to understand why Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) didn’t work for me.  Part of the reason may be that the writer speaks from a position of considerable wealth and privilege which he seems to take for granted.  His mother Mary Ann faced a horrible diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and her struggle to keep living and working even as she is dying is heroic.  There’s no doubt that she performed numerous good deeds and services in her remarkable life.  She sought to be a good mother and an independent worker in an age when mothers were generally expected to stay at home.  She travelled to many parts of the world at times of danger and crisis and she helped suffering people, not only through the agencies and boards and schools she served, but also because of many acts of personal kindness that few of us could hope to emulate.  Yet she could have done little of this had she not possessed the financial means to make these trips and donations. 

Will Schwalbe is a former book editor and the owner of a web site devoted to cooking.  He loves his family, and his book while focused on the life and death of his mother makes clear how important his brother and sister and father are to him.  At the same time the book explains how the prospect of his mother’s death, and her desire to form a two-person book club with her son in which they would discuss books they had read together, allows him to understand and love her more deeply than ever.  In particular he comes to appreciate what a difficult and challenging life she led, trying to be both a full-time mother and a full-time employee in various arenas, in all of which she appears to have been successful.

Mary Ann has the benefit of wealth, position, and supportive family members in the nearly two-year process of her death.  She’s aware of that position, and even in her final blog post she speaks about the importance of universal health care, but the author himself never made me feel that he fully understood.  I grew tired of the patina of famous names and places laid down in the book.  The book discussions themselves are not consistently interesting or revealing—sometimes they’re superficial.  And although one of the book’s persistent themes seems to be the author’s struggle to reach a deeper understanding of himself and his mother, I’m not convinced that the understanding he achieves goes very deep.  If Schwalbe’s mother had written this book, post mortem, I suspect we would have had a different story, a different book.  As it is, I’m more impressed by the woman who died than by her son’s memoir.

Schwalbe is not the literary writer that Oates and Didion are.  He’s more of a journalist.  His prose is spare and straightforward and tends towards simple and compound sentences.  One can’t fault him for that.  He writes well enough.  But does the fact of his writing skills, or Oates’ or Didion’s, make his experience of his loved one’s death anymore painful and terrible than the similar experiences of millions of others who don’t get written about? 

I still have failed in explaining my unhappiness with this book.  Maybe my own resentment of the author’s privileged station in life, and his insouciant unquestioning satisfaction with it, is the problem.  Maybe I am the snob.

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