This sounds like potentially the most depressing book of all time, it is not. But it is exactly what it says, about a book club started by a mother and son while the mother is dying of pancreatic cancer. It is a memoir, a lovely tribute to the love and affection of a whole family and an absolute devotion to the written word. Anyone who loves to read will appreciate this book.
Will and his mother Mary Anne start just about every visit or phone conversation with the question “What are you reading?” This struck a deep chord with me, I love this question, I love asking it and I ask almost everyone I know, who is ‘into’ books, this question. I love hearing about what others are reading, if it’s any good, if it’s changing the way they think about something or annoying the crap out of them, I just love talking about books…. almost as much as I love reading them. I have a wonderful relationship with my sister around books, she has the most wonderful collection (my library without borrowing periods and late fines), she can be counted on to bring me something I will love and we often pass each other a book saying you have to read this straight away so I can talk to someone about it. This is the kind of relationship Will and Mary Anne have, but even more importantly it helps them talk about the unthinkable, a time when she’s no longer around, about how Mary Anne’s husband might cope, about what her final wishes are. Some of these conversations remain obtuse, using the events or characters of a book to frame the discussion and never moving into the real world. while at other times the books are just a starting point for a deeper, more meaningful and intensely personal conversation. But all of them start with books to some extent.
I tend to have a difficult time reading most memoirs, if they’re not written by writers or at least someone with a clear talent with words they usually frustrate me. Even ghost writers can’t hide the fact that the person at the centre of the memoir is not a born writer. But this one was different, Will has worked as an book editor and in publishing for many years and had written other books – though not of this nature. He had a style that while not in the brilliant writer category, was easy to read and engaging. I flew through this in just a couple of days. It is fair to say that the end is sad, but you knew it had to be, it is also inspiring and above all compassionate.
What helps this book along as well as the wonderful literary insights, is that all the members of the family are interesting, unique and quite driven. Mary Anne worked in schools and universities for many years, assisting young people who might ordinarily not be able access such places to do just that. Later in life she founds and chairs a women’s organisation working for refugee women and children around the world. In this role she travels to places like Eastern Europe, Afganistan, Iraq, Africa and Asia. She mentors young people, sponsors them to come and study in America, works to empower women and educate children and touches the lives of thousands. Mary Anne’s daughter also works in international aid and accepts a job in Geneva at about the same time as her mother is diagnosed – an awful dilemma to face. The dynamic between mother and child(ren) is intriguing. Mary Anne seems to have an amazingly close relationship with all her children, is accepting of the lives and the choices they have made and supports their decisions whole-heartedly, however she can also be demanding of them and has a need to control every situation, stage managing visits to the nth degree and becoming frustrated if her plans have to change. She reminds me of Charity Lang from Crossing to Safety, the book that starts the End of Your Life Book Club and another that I read while away.
In the end I only gave this a three stars on Good Reads, and I started to wonder why. I think it’s because it does tend to get a bit preachy at the end and there is a pretentiousness that creeps in more and more. The family is very much comfortable financially – one would probably use the word wealthy – which becomes increasingly apparent as the book progresses, yet Will refers often to his own dwindling funds and money issues (he quits his quite prestigious job to pursue other interests, how many of us have that option even available to us?). Despite these shortcomings, I would still recommend this one to other literary lovers.