Knopf Canada|October 2, 2012|Hardcover|ISBN: 978-0-307-39966-3
Mary Anne Schwalbe was a renowned educator who filled such august positions as Director of Admissions at Harvard and Director of College Counselling at New York’s prestigious Dalton School. She also felt it incumbent upon herself to educate the less fortunate and spent the last 10 years of her life building libraries in Afghanistan. But her story here begins with a mocha, dispensed from a machine in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Over coffee, Will casually asks his mom what she’s been reading. The conversation they have grows into tradition: soon they mutually agree to read the same books and share them together as Mary Anne waits for her chemotherapy treatments. The book they read, chosen by both, range from the classic to the popular: from The Painted Veil to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; from My Father’s Tears to the Christian spiritual classic Daily Strength for Daily Needs. Their discussions reveal how books become increasingly important to the connection between a remarkable woman whose life is coming to a close, and a young man becoming closer to his mom than ever before.
By late fall of 2007, Will and his mom, seventy-three-year-old, Mary Ann were frequent flyers in the department where people with cancer waited to see their doctors to be hooked up to a drip for doses of the life-prolonging poison that is one of the wonders of the modern medical world.
Will and Mary Ann’s book club got its formal start with a cup of mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: “What are you reading?” One day in November, Will asked this mother that very question and she responded: “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner; which was first published in 1987. Will decided to read it as well and discovered it was about the lifelong friendship of two couples: Sid and Charity, and Larry and Sally. At the beginning of the novel, Charity is dying of cancer. Once Will had read the book it was natural that he wanted to discuss it with his mom. The book gave them “a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things” that Will was facing.
Although Will and Mary Ann had always talked books because it provided them with a way to introduce and explore topics that concerned them but made them uneasy, and it also gave them a way to talk about something when they were stressed or anxious. Over the ensuing months since Mary Ann’s diagnoses of pancreatic cancer that had already spread, they realized they had created, without even knowing it, a very unusual book club. Their conversations were sometimes about the characters in the novel and their life, but at the same time discussed their own situations. Will wanted to learn more about his Mom’s life and the choices she made so he often directed the conversation that way.
Will said: “…the book club became our life, but it would be more accurate to say that our life became the book club.” They talked about books and their lives.
Will maintained that one of the things he learned from his mother was: “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read of my mother’s books without thinking of her – and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.”
Mary Ann and Will reminded themselves that no matter where they were on Mary Ann’s cancer journey, and on their individual journeys, reading the books they wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; they would simply be a mother and son entering new worlds together. The books also provided much-needed ballast – something they both craved, amid the chaos and upheaval of Mary Ann’s illness.
Will realized that for him and his family, part of the process of their mother dying was mourning not just her death but also the death of their dreams of things to come. You don’t really lose the person who has been; you have all those memories of the past but thoughts of what you won’t be able to do in the future with that person.
Will Schwalbe has done a remarkable job with this novel, touching on the real feelings and issues surrounding the process of a close family member dying. They way in which this mother and son chose to deal with the heartbreak was truly amazing and worked well. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and will be recommending it to all my family and friends.