I’ll start by saying it’s a good read and I enjoyed it. Which is actually saying a lot about a book that is about a mother’s death and also about their personal book club. Neither sound easy or fun. But Will Schwalbe does make it readable and engaging, not heavy.
The book is what it sounds like, the record of books and conversations that Will had with his mother over the course of her treatment and eventual death from pancreatic cancer. Why write a book about that? I’m not sure, except that books and reading are important to Will — who was in publishing — and to his mother. “…one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing, it’s the opposite of dying.” And over the course of two years they read a bunch of them. Mostly fiction. I’m not that big a reader — and especially not of fiction — so I hardly knew most of the books and didn’t have any especially resonance with the books or their reactions to them. But you don’t need to know the books to read along with Will and his mother.
I suppose the primary message of the book Will Schwalbe wrote is that Mary Anne Schwalbe was a very good person. That comes across. It’s actually something I already knew, having met her and knowing her daughter pretty well. And what loyal son doesn’t want to say that about their mom? What loyal son doesn’t wish to say that about their mom, even if it’s not true — or not as true as they wish?
Because that is Will’s theme, with very little nuance or deviation, it’s hard for me not to try to poke little holes in it, or try — or the sake of argument — to rebut it. Not that his mother was a bad person, but that he’s not presenting her honestly or in her full person. If there are some faults with the book, it’s not to say they are faults of Mary Anne Schwalbe.
To write a glowing biography of your mom, using a book club and her admirable approach to an incurable illness is a pretty good device. Will displays her fortitude and empathy for others grandly. And the conversations about books allows Will to have his mother express her philosophy and personality. And it gives readers some interesting diversions and scenery besides medical center waiting rooms, chemo sessions, and awards ceremonies for his mother.
Mary Anne Schwalbe was well loved and also dedicated a large portion of her life to helping refugees. She was busy in her life, traveled extensively both for pleasure and for her refugee work. She was a loving mother, friend, mentor, philanthropist. And, happily, she was well-recognized for all of this in her own time. The book documents this well — and without too much obnoxious bragging.
Anyway — a few thoughts in the nature of criticisms:
- privilege. The book was written (2012/3) a bit before we entered the great privilege discourse. But it’s a pretty glaring absence now, and I’m sure Will would have discussed this if he was writing now. Still the privilege of this family is enormous. Mary Anne and Will are well aware of how lucky they are to have excellent medical care, comfortable lives, travel to London and Florida, summer homes, etc etc. But a bit more reflection on how this colors the experience and the story is a big gap. Obviously, pancreatic cancer is much tougher on people with less privilege. And end-of-life book clubs are probably the province of the rich. Reading books, itself, is increasingly an archaic, time-intensive activity. And reading a lot of books is coming to be transformed from a way to gain knowledge and insight to a a way to signal social class, leisure, and elitism.
- religion. Faith and religion are important to Mary Anne and a source of small tension with Will, who is not religious. There’s a moving bit where Will tells his mom he’ll pray, even though he’s an atheist(?), and this is consoling to his mom. She prays and goes to church and drags her kids there and forces them into Sunday school. AND YET, Will just glides over the biographical detail that both Mary Anne and her husband (Will’s dad) are from Jewish families. What? When did the conversions take place? Why? How? How do they relate to Judaism now, if at all? This seems like a pretty big elision to me — especially if religion is going to play a significant role in the text.
- Notwithstanding that the Schwalbes are previously Jews, they are now classic model WASPs, including rigorous inability to express emotions well, extreme value placed on stoicism and positivity. “I’m really trying to make it clear to people that if they’re going to cry all the time, then they can’t come over.” Feeling “not great” is how Mary Anne lets others know she’s in pain or miserable. But Will also — perhaps inadvertently — uses “not great” throughout the text to express various forms of “bad.” The weather was “not great” rather than crappy or bad or rainy or cold. Why not call the weather what it is? I promise the weather won’t be offended.
- Good manners, thank-you notes, being cheerful and well-presented. These all count for a lot to the Schwalbes. I tend to agree. But there’s something a bit scolding and also dissociated about it. How do you decide whether to go to a funeral? “… if you can’t go, you can’t. Then you write a nice note as soon as you can.” These are good rules for life, but are they the life lessons a person looking back on her own life imparts to her grown children? What about happiness? What about purpose? What about regret, redress, reconciliation?
- As an editor and writer, Will knows that what is in not in a text is often as interesting and meaningful as what is in the text. There’s a lot missing in this text. About her marriage with Will’s father — and about Will’s father himself — we learn very very little. Just sketchy details about him. Why? Presumably this was a deeply meaningful, influential, and important relationship for Mary Anne? But why don’t we learn more about their relationship? As a father, was he an absent presence, or a troubling one? The book isn’t about him, but the absence is notable.
- Will refers in passing to the idea that the literary topic of a son’s relationship with his Mom “is regarded, frankly, as a bit gay.” And of course, Will is gay. It’s an interesting observation, and as someone in publishing, he might have more to say on the topic. Is it gay? Is it only gay men who have the courage and emotional freedom to tackle it? Why is Will doing it? Was it strange to write or publish on this subject? But alas, it’s just a passing comment.
Overall, I liked the book. It’s well written. Some things work very well, but others don’t. Not every discussion of the books they read works well or has a meaningful theme or outcome. In my case, part of the appeal is that I know the family and enjoyed learning more about them. Would someone else feel the same? I don’t know. In the end, the book lacks catharsis. There is no great struggle or transformation. Mary Anne departs gracefully, well loved and fully intact as a person. The family and so many others grieve and worry, and come together, which is a sign of their great love and also their good health. Maybe that doesn’t make it great literature, but if nothing else, it’s a fine tribute.