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Intriguing Premise; Heartfelt But Lacks Cohesion
on January 1, 2014
Will Schwalbe's book starts out strong; the book is a paean and a celebration of the unique mother-son bond amidst the backdrop of a lifelong mutual love of books. Will, a former book editor, lives and breathes books, a trait no doubt enhanced by his mother's bibliophile tendencies. His writing is strong and clear at the beginning, but lacks a cohesive strength and has very little personal insight; the book becomes more observational and factual which left me a bit cold. His urgency to share and discuss the books they read is brought about by his mother's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Medical treatments, diagnosis, family, and books form the crux of this work. Yet, I strangely felt that something was missing, and I believe it was the author's unwillingness to get "too personal." Facts, dates, and timelines create a narrative, but I found myself skipping sections of the book because I felt like screaming, "Will, do you have a POINT?" Despite the meandering paths amidst an admirable effort to paint us a portrait of his mother, the book has charm and warmth. I laughed out loud at several of his personal reminiscences, including one where his mother mixed up their dog's de-worming medicine and her birth control pills in the 1960's, illustrating the multitasking challenges facing a mom, wife, and career woman. I would have loved a few more of those vignettes. Its biggest downfall might be the lack of relatability and Will's tendency to name-drop and bask in the reflected glory of Ivy League intelligentsia. Frequent allusions to his family's relatively privileged East Coast background drag the book down and make many of the themes and situations inaccessible to the common man. For all his mother's privilege combined with altruism, she was not immune to what we will all face one day- death. Her dignity in the face of a brutal illness, and commitment to her family and strong values, is what I will remember most fondly from this book, and for that, Will deserves applause. In the end, books take a backseat to Will's adoration of his mother, a singular woman of character whose life has much to teach us. Will has also taught us and expressed the value of "just being there" for an ill loved one in a very wonderful way.