BOOK CLUB – The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

5256159881 7ba9c432e6 m pictureWelcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, from Knopf. For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion may contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

For as long as he can remember, Will Schwalbe’s mother has been almost a super-human figure. She was Harvard’s first female director of admissions, then later the founding director of International Rescue Committee’s Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. Nothing could slow Mary Anne Schwalbe down, except stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Even cancer didn’t slow Will’s mother down as much as it would most people. Still, though, there were those periods of enforced rest, the doctor appointments, the chemotherapy treatments. Will is lucky enough to have the flexibility and proximity to attend many of his mother’s appointments with her. When they are together, the conversation frequently defaults to the same thing it has throughout their lives: books.

The End of Your Life Book Club is as much – or more – about Mary Anne’s life with and death from cancer than about the books that the two read together. It is a chronicle of the last months of her life, a testament to her strength, and Will’s coming to terms with the way his family’s life will be forever changed./blockquote>

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option, the second option will subscribe you only to replies of your own comments).  I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • Were you able to connect with the Schwalbes and their loss?
  • Had you read any of the books that Will and his mother read? Do you think this affected your enjoyment of/connection to The End of Your Life Book Club in any way?
  • Did the frame of the books and the book club work well for you as a way to access Will and Mary Anne’s story?
  • What do you think of Will’s revelation that he had basically had his mother’s name wrong his entire life?
  • Any other questions? Anything else you want to discuss?

12  copies of The End of Your Life Book Club were provided by Knopft in order to facilitate this discussion.  Below are reviews from some of this conversation’s participants:

Books Speak Volumes | Devourer of Books | Read Lately

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77 comments to BOOK CLUB – The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

  • I actually don’t think I would have read this had it not been offered to us for BOOK CLUB. It was on my radar, but hadn’t really called to me, despite having seen lots of praise for it. However, when it was offered it seemed like such a great book to discuss that I couldn’t pass it up.

    As I mentioned in my review, I just didn’t really connect with this book. Perhaps because I’ve been lucky not to have dealt with this kind of chronic illness, or perhaps because I read a novel with an unexpected death and end of life questions just before starting this. I was interested in their story and felt sad for the Schwalbe family, but in a very detached way.

    Of everything they read I believe the only books I had read were The Hobbit and The Uncommon Reader. I think this feeds into my next thought, that I wish there was more explicit discussion of how the books they read influenced and interacted with what they were going through. It is difficult, because I wouldn’t want Schwalbe to misrepresent what actually happened, but the fact that the chapters were named after the specific books gave me the expectation that the books themselves would be important, rather than just the act of talking about books in general.

    Participants: If you’ve reviewed this book, I will be happy to add links up through Thanksgiving weekend.

    • I also had a harder time connecting to the book. I thought that the constant listing of books and the fear of having a spoiler given about those books took me out of the memoir and into my own thoughts. I’ll comment more about my opinions in my own posting below! :)

    • I wish I had felt more of a connection as well. There were a few moments when I felt like it was THISCLOSE to grabbing me a bit tighter but then..nope. :( I still enjoyed the book and I would still recommend it but I wish I had felt MORE.

    • I think I was expecting more of a story of their book choices and their discussions on the stories, rather than a log of his mother’s illness. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing to read about it, but I was more looking forward to reading about their discussions and that was a tiny part of the book.

  • I had a difficult time getting into this book. I had originally checked it out from the library before receiving my copy in the mail. I actually returned it after only a few chapters, I thought it had been slow moving and it was really depressing. However, once I received my copy in the mail I was determined to finish it.

    I don’t think that I read any of the books that they had read, however, many made it to my to be read list. Had I read them, maybe I would have had a deeper connection with those sections of the book.

    The thing that sold this book for me, and really gave me a better understanding and appreciation for the book in hindsight, was the quote in the obituary:

    “She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you chose—electronic (even though that wasn’t for her) or printed, or audio—is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation.”

  • I probably would’ve read this book whether or not I was selected to participate in this book club. I love the premise of discussing great books with someone you love, since it’s something I do all the time, most notably with my own mom. I also appreciate some of the book’s quips – “reading is not the opposite of doing – it’s the opposite of dying”; and (paraphrased): “technically we’re all in an end-of-life book club since you never know when you’ll read you’re last book.” Because of these lines and more, the book called to me.

    BUT like Jen I also had qualms with the book (see my review at I did think it was a touching tribute. Will obviously loves his mother very much and admires her greatly; (you will too after reading – what an intrepid woman!) but I, too, felt very disconnected from the books discussed. I didn’t realize until Jen brought this up that it was probably because I hadn’t read most of them! Many of them were of interest to the participants because they were set in far-away countries that reminded Mary Anne of her work with refugees, some were written by writers I’d never heard of and some were short story collections, a genre I don’t dabble in very much. I do think Will could’ve done more to make these books accessible – or at least relevant to the disease itself as it progressed. With the exception of Crossing Safety – after which they discussed how Mary Ann’s husband would fare after her death – the books didn’t seem to be connected to the illness.The trope of the book club actually felt a little forced to me. Does anyone else agree?

    I think this book was more about the illness and less about the books. Which is fine – but it means that the proportion is skewed, which Jen touched upon too. In my review, I said that I felt Will hid behind these books in order to avoid having to directly emote about the illness – which perhaps put it a little strongly. But I still didn’t feel that Will dug deep enough – which is the prime responsibility of a memoir writer.

    One other thing I wanted to bring up: I got totally spooked by the death scene at the end! Though Will’s mom read avidly throughout her illness, she coudn’t read for the last weekend of her life because she was basically unconscious. As she lay dying, Will notes that the books that she loves are all around and mentions authors by name… and for the first time it dawned on me that you can’t take your books with you! That in the end they’re just tomes that are in fact very separate from what you’re experiencing – death. That said, is the immense investment we readers put into reading during our lifetimes worth it? And, if you were knew you were dying, would you want to spend so much of the time you had left reading? Or would you rather not live through the people in books but spend as much time as you could having new experiences yourself (a bucket list of sorts?) Would books seem less or more poignant given this new life circumstance? (Sorry, if these comments seem blasphemous to book lovers! I count myself among you!)

    Looking forward to your responses.

    • Good questions. When you’re dying of pancreatic cancer (especially if you don’t have all of the financial advantages the Schwalbes have), you can spend time with your family but the best bet for new experiences is probably in books. I was really surprised at how much international travel Mary Anne did after her diagnosis. I would guess that is pretty abnormal – even if you DO feel good enough you’re probably spending too much on health care for it to be feasible.

      • I agree, but I thinks that’s kind of what saved her – or at least kept her sane. As long as she could still travel, as long as she had trips to look forward to, she knew she “wasn’t dead yet” and could still maintain some sense of control. Did you notice, though, how anytime she traveled anywhere she wound up with infection and fever? I kept thinking as I read that the trips weren’t a good idea…

    • I would want to do a lot of reading. That is going to be my one major regret when I’m on my deathbed someday: that I didn’t get to read all the books I wanted to read in my lifetime. (Actually, I’m hoping to go quickly so I’m not even aware of what happened.) Of course I will want to spend time with people I love, but I’m pretty sure I won’t want to be surrounded by people every minute of the day.

      I see my book collection as worth it, because those books will be passed on to my daughter, and she’ll love them as much as I did.

    • I definitely agree about the book being more about illness than a book club, which was disappointing to me. I did feel it was a touching tribute to his mom — an incredibly sweet and personal way of keeping her memory alive, but I almost feel as if we were tricked! And I mean that in the nicest of ways haha!

  • I like reading books about book clubs and people reading books, so this was something that was on my radar but I probably would not have had the chance to get it had I not read it for book club. At the outset, I really enjoyed the book. Schwalbe gives some helpful tips for people dealing with terminally ill, and just confronting death in general. As a culture, I feel like we are pretty adverse to discussing death, and uncomfortable dealing with people who are being affected. In this case it would be Will and his mother. I did want more discussion of the books. They were such avid readers that it seemed they were getting through a book a night, and all of them were mentioned. I think he could have been more selective in the ones he chose. By the end it seemed rather like a whirlwind, and too much information without having enough commentary about the books.

    Marry Ann was overwhelming to me. She gave so much and expected so much that I was tired by reading all of her activities. I also don’t think that you can dictate how people live their lives. I found her to be fascinating but preachy. I think Schwalbe’s writing was wonderful. He was able to concisely sum up what they had been reading, and organized what was going on very well, but I did feel that I was kept a bit at a distance and I am not sure why.

    • I agree about the preachy-ness! (spelling?) Mary Anne’s voice just didn’t feel real to me – it seemed every time she opened her mouth another life lesson emerged. Almost like Will was trying to canonize his mother – she came off a bit saintly, didn’t she? I also don’t know how true-to-life their dialogue actually was because as he says in the prologue, he didn’t know he would write the book until after the fact. So it’s not like he taped their conversations, just tried to stay true to their spirit. Though it couldn’t be helped I’m not sure how much is Mary Anne and how much is Will superimposing himself.

      • I do wonder about his reliability as a narrator. I don’t think he is purposefully changing anything, but I do wonder how objectively children can ever really view their parents. For example, it wasn’t until his mother was nearly gone that he realized her first name was Mary and middle name was Ann, rather than her first name being Mary Anne.

        • Gina Beirne

          I’m only about halfway through (sorry, but real life intervened with my reading life). I agree about Will’s lack of objectivity about his mother. Although she seems like a really awesome lady who did a lot of good in the world, I too wonder how “perfect” she really was.

      • I was wondering how accurately reproduced their conversations were, too. However, Mary Anne’s input into the writing of the book helped give Will a little credibility on that end, I think. Will told her before she died that he had decided to write this book, and she gave him letters and sent him emails and did other things to help him write it. I imagine that she used these materials to tell Will what kinds of things she would like him to include, go into further detail about what they had talked about together, and tell him more about her thoughts and beliefs.

    • I see what you mean about the preachy-ness. She was portrayed as a little bit too good to be true? I wonder how much he was restrained by her wishes, even after she was gone. I mean, he didn’t even write the blog that they had together.

  • This book was bittersweet for me. My grandmother died of ovarian cancer in 2001, and her story shared a lot of similarities with Mary Anne’s story. My grandmother lived for about a year and a half after she was diagnosed, she was 74 when she died, and she spent her last few days in a drug-induced coma. Because I lived in PA–and she lived in NY–I didn’t see a lot of the finer details of her battle. I went home as often as I could over the course of that year, but not often enough. This book raised a lot of questions for me about my grandmother’s battle with her illness–questions that I had either subconsciously shoved away in my brain somewhere, or really just didn’t think to ask at the time. When I was done reading this book, I called my mother (who was my grandmother’s primary caregiver) and we had a long talk about that year and what went on (how my mother felt about everything).

    I’m sure I would have read this eventually, with or without Book Club.

    I haven’t read the majority of the books mentioned in this book, but I’ve made a list so that I can.

    I think the books gave Will and Mary Anne a way to talk about things that they wouldn’t necessarily have been able to talk about without the books as mediators. It’s not easy for most people to talk about illness and death, especially when it pertains to a close loved one. And I think it gave Will a way to find out more about his mother without acting like, “Hey, I need to know this stuff about you now because you’re dying.” No matter how much we *think* we know about our parents, there are so many things we really don’t know (or will never know). This is true for anyone we’re close to.

    I really connected with this book, and at times it was kind of hard for me to read. I’m glad I read it, though.

    • I wondered if maybe people whose families had gone through things like this might just find it more meaningful than those who didn’t. I agree about the impetus for life and end-of-life questions, although I thought that at times Will could have been more explicit about which books specifically raised which questions.

      • Yes! I agree with that last sentence, Jen. The only time the connection was made explicit was with Crossing Safety.

      • I guess I felt that all of the conversations Will wrote about happened according to the books that gave each chapter their title. Even if the conversations didn’t revolve around the book, I took it that those particular books ended up bringing about those particular memories and conversations.

    • I agree that books helped Will and Mary Anne talk about topics that would otherwise have been very difficult for them to approach, but they were also a way to escape from the scary topics. There’s a quote in the book that I underlined that really reflects both sides:

      “That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something to talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”

      • That is also very true, and something I had forgotten to talk about when I left my comment.

      • I like that, too. I think that’s how Will was able to ask his mother more about her past. If only she opened up just a little more!!!

      • “That’s one of the things books do. They help us talk. But they also give us something to talk about when we don’t want to talk about ourselves.”

        I’m glad you pointed out that quote. They used books to keep a bit of a distance between them (in my opinion) and he used books to keep a distance between his story and his readers.

    • Heather, have you thought of reading that one book about illness? I thought about it even though I don’t have a direct connection with it at this moment, because I feel like even that one question, “Do you want to talk about how you are feeling” would be beneficial!

  • I probably would have gotten around to reading this sooner or later. It’s showed up on a lot of “Best of” lists and I was intrigued about the premise. I’ll pick up any book about books!

    As far as connecting to the family and their loss…I wish I could have connected a bit more. Just when I was feeling an affinity for them the book would take a turn. I felt as if the author was almost not *letting* a connection be made. There was almost a distance kept, a hand held up as if to say that he wouldn’t let me all the way in.

    I’ve read a number of the books that Will and his mother discussed, maybe a quarter of them? I admit to being bummed out that Gilead was much loved by both of them as I didn’t like that book at all 😉 I should reword that to say that I’m bummed out that I didn’t like it as much as they did!

    Honestly, I wish they had talked *more* about books. I wanted to know the questions they asked themselves in particular. Their discussions about the books they read seemed incomplete to me. I thought a better connection could have been made between what they were reading and what was currently happening in their lives.

    Will’s mother seemed to be the one who didn’t want to delve too deep though, so perhaps the author can’t be blamed for the lack of connection?

    I really did enjoy learning about Mary Ann(e). She lived a large life and did a lot of good for the world and didn’t let the end of her life become maudlin and depressing.

  • Cathy

    I was aware of the general buzz about this book so assumed it would include humor, wisdom and sadness. It does include all that which is what I would expect. When I started it, Will’s style did not knock my socks off but as I continued reading, something about his straightforward narrative began to work for me. By the end, I was happy to have spent time with the remarkable Mary Anne.

    I knew I was going to like her early on even before I got to know her formidable accomplishments. When Will tells us that his mother always read the end of a book first, I felt a bond with a fellow spirit. I’ve abandoned this habit as I’ve gotten older, but I think it was partly because it felt almost like a reader’s sin.

    If there was one word that kept coming to me to describe Mary Anne it was “earnest.” Her desire to act seriously and with purpose is her north star. Would such a personality become a bit much at other times? I certainly don’t know, but under the circumstances described here, she remained appealing and someone you would want to be around. To be noble and selfless without pomposity or naiveté is a rarity.

    I didn’t have any expectations about how much books would be discussed in this story so I wasn’t disappointed. I thought Will showed his editorial skils highlighting what he did. I’d read many of the books, some are on my to-be-read list and others I have little interest in trying.

    Among his observations about authors, one that stood out was when Mary Ann spoke about cruelty. She says it is what gets to her but is important to read about because reading about it helps make it easier to recognize. Cruel ways can be subtle and evil almost always starts with small cruelties. That’s why we need to read about it.

    She mentions that Tennessee Williams was a writer attuned to cruelty. Many books have been written about cruelty, including The Kite Runner, but she mentioned Williams. She nailed a writer perfectly to a theme, and I thought this is a careful reader. Although the books themselves are not discussed at length, I enjoyed their brief observations. They were akin to those little bursts Elizabeth Strout writes about in Olive Kitteridge-insightful notations about a character or theme rather than the big burst of a full-hearted review or discussion.

    My family has endured a catastrophic medical diagnosis and the experience was completely different. It ripped through my family with few moments of solace and comfort. My father became completely paralyzed and unable to speak or eat. We did not share books, but we shared music which we both loved. To this day, more than 20 years later, there are certain pieces of music I cannot listen to without crying.

    Though cursed with a terrifying diagnosis and treatments, the Schwalbe family resources were optimal: a loving family and friends, good health insurance, top physicians and support people with great communication skills. In addition, Mary Anne seems to have embraced Churchill’s advice: if you’re going through hell, keep going. Using a book club–especially an intimate club of two such as this one–seems like medicine itself to me.

    • I was also struck by their conversation about cruelty. I’m always drawn to emotionally draining books about war/famine/other awfulness and I’ve never understood why. Maybe it’s just to understand that it does happen, it is happening and will continue to happen unless more people are aware.

      I’ve never know someone in real life that has read the ends of books first! When I get to the final pages of a book I’ll cover up the right page with my hand so my eyes aren’t tempted to sneak a peek, lol.

    • I have a member of the book club I facilitate that admits to reading the end first. Several times she’s almost spoiled it for the others!

      I also loved their conversation on cruelty and I think this was where I really connected with both of them. It took awhile, but I did eventually make the connection that I find necessary to truly enjoy a book. I may not have loved every aspect, but I did enjoy it as a whole.

      • Cathy

        I know! How can someone (moi) who loves to read look at the ending first? Part of my sitting-in-the back-of-the-bus-rebel attitude? There was that element (but not for Mary Anne, of course!), but I think it was this curiosity about tying a beginning to an end to enjoy the middle. Whatever it was, I’ve since ceased and desisted! Has it made me love a book more or less would be difficult to say since you cannot compare the experiences. But you probably do take note of things differently.

        The experience of reading itself, apart from what is read, is a fascinating topic. I think Will talks about that experience more than the books themselves.

  • I wanted to read this book before it was announced as a Book Club pick, so I was very excited when I won a copy!

    I really liked this book, but like a few others, I found it hard to relate to at times. I am lucky enough not to have lost a parent, and it was hard for me to understand what Will was going through, knowing his mother would die in the not-so-distant future. I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch your parent slowly deteriorate, knowing there’s nothing you can do to keep her alive.

    I haven’t read any of the books they discussed, but I added many of them to my TBR list! I do wish the book had gone into more detail about how the books related to Will and Mary Anne’s lives, but this wasn’t a big problem for me.

    This book wasn’t nearly as depressing as I was afraid it might be. As I wrote in my blog review (, I liked that it focused more on the journey Will and Mary Anne took together, the time they spent bonding, and the lessons Will learned than the sadness of Mary Anne’s impending death. (However, maybe it would have been sadder for me if I had been through a situation similar to theirs).

    Mary Anne was such an amazing character, and I am so glad I got to know her a little bit through this book!

    • You haven’t read ANY of those books????

      Funny enough, I borrowed from a friend “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch, so that was what I read right after The End of Your Life Book Club. It’s a good one to read because it’s related (pancreatic cancer) but it’s short like Mitch Albom books. It evoked much more emotion from me, since Randy would end up dying with three children under the age of 10, which is so sad and depressing. But the book is inspirational and positive.

      • Ooh, actually I haven’t read The Last Lecture, but I did watch the actual speech he gave for a class a few years ago. Does that count?

        Thinking about it now, I guess I should clarify that I haven’t read any of the books that were the chapter titles! Looking through the index, I have read a few of the books mentioned. I’m not so hopeless after all! And many of the other books they talked about were on my TBR list before I read this, and I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet.

    • I have read eleven of the books mentioned in this book–and if I remember correctly, only one of them was actually part of the book club talk. I have a lot of reading to do, too, Leah.

      • I have a ton of reading to do, too, but I haven’t counted the exact number of books yet. . . probably because it’s a long, intimidating list! Not intimidating like scary books, but intimidating/exciting since it’s long!

      • Gina Beirne

        Once again, I’m only halfway through, but after looking at the works and authors mentioned in the appendix, I only read about two dozen of those mentioned.

    • I wonder if part of the reason I couldn’t connect to it as much as I wanted to is because I haven’t lost a parent? Just thinking about that sends me over the edge and I have the feeling that if I had had those feelings to tap into while reading this it would have made a bigger impression on me.

  • I would probably have picked this book up eventually, but not right away, so thank you, first of all, for the book!

    I thought the book was slow, and there was a point in the beginning where I wanted to, and would have, put it down if we weren’t discussing the book today. However, I am glad that I did push through because I ended up enjoying the book as a whole.

    I did not feel emotional connections really with the book. I honestly was VERY distracted by the constant listing of books they were discussing and I was really nervous that Will or Mary Ann(e) would give a spoiler for one that I haven’t read yet! Leah from Books Speak Volumes made a good point saying that we probably wouldn’t remember it when we read the book, which makes sense, but didn’t stop me from being nervous while reading!

    While I wasn’t able to connect with the Schwalbes, I did feel more of a connection with my own family. The book made me want to call my mom and tell her I was proud of her. And it made me ask my mom if we could do something similar, not like a book club, just more like reading the same books in a closer time frame.

    I have read some of the books, and I stated my thoughts earlier about being scared of spoilers and distracted by the constant listing.

    I wish that Will was able to find out more information about his mom. I think that Mary Ann(e) shut him out a good amount, which is sad since Will can only learn what he’s told.

    All in all, I enjoyed the book once I forced my way through it! :)

    Here’s my quickie quick review on my blog:

    • This book made me realize how much I *should* have said to–or asked–my Nonny. I already tell my mother how proud I am of her all the time, but this book brought up so many “I should have’s” for me concerning my grandmother.

      • There’s no reason why you can’t try to communicate that to her now. I’m sure she’s listening! And maybe you can ask some other relatives, because they might know things that would be interesting to you, too!

        • I’ve had a long conversation with my mom about all of it. There are still some things I think Mom can tell me, but we’ll get to those conversations soon. :)

      • Good point, Heather. I never knew any of my grandparents well (they all either died when I was really young or lived halfway across the country while alive), but it did make me think about how little I actually know about my own mother. I don’t know why, but sometimes it’s hard to ask about the things I’m most curious about in her past.

        Reading Will’s worries about saying too much to his mother too early about how much he loves her and how much she means to him — his worries about eulogizing her while she was still alive — made me wonder what I would say if one of my parents died. Thinking about what I might say in an actual eulogy was terrifying and really hit home how little I know about my parents as people rather than just parents. Hopefully as I grow older and start a life on my own, I’ll get to know my parents in a new way!

        • Leah, I was thinking about that, too, how it’s tough to ask Mom and Dad those questions. . . I was actually thinking about how Will wrote his parents letters when coming out to them. I wondered about whether that might be a good way to communicate some of those difficult things, ask some of those questions that I want to know, through emails or actual letter writing.

          • Cathy

            Mary Anne would be thrilled knowing so many readers of her son’s book think about reaching out to their families in new ways.

    • Ha ha, I was nervous about spoilers too!

  • I really loved this book! I had met Will Schwalbe at BEA and he spoke about his book, but I didn’t see it anywhere on the floor and just made a mental note to read it at some point. I was so thrilled for it to be picked for book club (and I won a copy!). I was impressed with Mary Anne Schwalbe, and loved how much everyone in the family read. I lost my father to pancreatic cancer over eleven years ago, although my father was one of the unlucky ones to only have a couple of months from diagnosis to death. There is a certain sweet torture when you know your loved is going to die, but not knowing how long they’re going to live.

    Will and his mom read a lot of literary books, and out of all the books listed at the back of the book, I’ve only read 11. There were several books mentioned that I now really want to read, but I agree with some of the readers who wanted more discussion of the books. But I loved how he really made an effort to read the same books as his mom, and the many ways they picked which books to read next.

    I was not at all surprised that he had his mom’s name wrong. At 35, I am still uncovering information about my parents. My mom has always thought her middle name was Ann, but her sister is convinced it’s Anna- so there’s some confusion. If Will’s mom has always spelled it like Mary Anne, I don’t see how he was supposed to know. She was a woman who liked her secrets after all. 😉

    There were so many parts of the book I marked, and it’s so nice to have quotes about books and readers and the love of reading. This is such a book for readers, even if I haven’t read most of the books that were brought up. I think I just really enjoyed the Schwalbe family, loved how much emphasis was put on books and reading, loved how Mary Anne made the very best of the last days of her life.

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