This book is Will Schwalbe’s love letter to his mother – a rather remarkable woman who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In the final months of her life, she and Will begin a book club as a way of holding on to each other, and as it turns out, find ways to deal with her inevitable passing.
That is the magic of books you see. Not only can they bring people together, but also they can teach you so much about the world you live in.
So there is a lot of talk about books here, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing Over, Alan Bennett’s An Uncommon Reader and Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book to begin with (the latter two being favourites of mine and thus easy to remember). Although no doubt you will be introduced to some new titles too – and will note a few down. Will shares not only his own thoughts – and rather interesting ones given his extensive years spent in publishing – but also his mother’s that often differ from his.
Mary Anne Schwalbe’s rich and varied life experiences form the other half of the novel. And they can be found in her interpretations and appreciation of the book club books. Mary Anne was an international activist for refugees and women’s rights, and her final project was to build a library in Afghanistan. She is often drawn to books that show the plight of people in other countries – Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage for example. She also had strong religious feeling which her son did not share, but gradually grew to have an appreciation for as he saw the positive impact it had on her while she was ill. She was also that rare kind of person that even while suffering great win from her cancer, still her tremendous empathy for the characters or real people whose stories she read. She always held on to how lucky she was. And in the end, that’s how Will chooses to remember her – a lucky happy woman who died without regrets.
There are two kinds of people who will get a lot out of this book. Firstly – and most obviously – book lovers. It is a loving discussion of interesting books that no-one could fail to be inspired by. And secondly, those looking to explore ways to handle illness and the helplessness you feel when someone near and dear to you is ill.
Karen Walker did something similar recently with Reading by Moonlight. But I would suggest that this is the better of the two.