Book Review of When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
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Helpful Score: 2


5.0 out of 5 stars -- I do not usually read memoirs or nonfiction but I was drawn to this because the forward was written by Abraham Verghese, the author of one of my favorite books of all time -- CUTTING FOR STONE.

Ostensibly, the book is about the life of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a young man who is in the last year of his neurosurgery residency when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. We know at the outset that he has recently died, leaving behind a wife and an 8-month-old baby girl. But the true nature of his writing is the underlying theme -- Why are we here -- what is the purpose of life.

The book is not maudlin or dramatic, and it's not for everyone. There's a lot of medical detail and literature references that some might find pretentious or overwhelming. After all, Paul initially majored in Literature before he was called to become a physician and surgeon. The reader learns of Paul's early years, growing up in Arizona, and about his education and training in his young adulthood. Then it shifts to his changed circumstances and his treatment after being diagnosed. We see glimpses into his personal life and hear about his closeness to his family, colleagues and friends. What the book most definitely not is a roadmap, nor a guide of how to navigate a terminal illness -- it's not a story of how he found religion, and it definitely does not provide THE ANSWER.

I feel that the mark of a really great book is when it makes me think. When it causes me to pause for periods of intense self-reflection. I do not want to live an unexamined life. I read this over the course of a couple of hours and had to take a break just to reflect on some of Paul's personal insights. These were his thoughts, his reactions, his decisions. What would mine be, given my own life situations. It made me wish that this poetic soul had received the gift of more time. I came away from this reading experience humbled by his story. I would like to think I will go gently and courageously, not screaming WHY ME -- but none of us knows until it happens. Can a person prepare for death, really?

I'd recommend this for the beautiful prose and for giving the opportunity to see what one man did and said and thought during the last months of his life. How would I like to be remembered...what will I leave behind.

Thank you to NetGalley for the e-book ARC to review.