Probably the most difficult memoir I’ve read to date. I was left gasping for air by the end of this personally much anticipated book in 2016.
To quickly summarize the story, Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age of 36. Stage IV for any cancer is pretty much a dismal diagnosis, but more so when the patient was never a smoker to begin with. It takes a minimum of ten years of residency for neurosurgeons, and this man was just about to really start his life with his wife when suddenly everything stopped. He not only had to help his patients face their mortality, he now had to do the same for himself. And so he wrote this book, dying while still writing it.
This book is divided into three “parts” with a foreword by Abraham Verghese, the memoir by the late doctor, and ends with an afterword by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s wife. I wasn’t thrilled with the foreword only by the wordy images that went on and on.
The memoir was interesting as the doctor had a number of advanced degrees under his belt before attending Yale for medical school. The writing style wasn’t the best, yet it expressed intense and deep existential thoughts about life and death. What makes a life worth living? How does someone know they’ve lived a meaningful life? Paul’s writing came through as anyone brilliant enough to achieve what he had as a physician – clinical, direct, and calm. Some reviewers wanted emotion from him. For me, this was who the man was.
Finally, the afterword by the author’s wife is long but it carries on the story by explaining how he wrote the book, what his life and death were like, and what he meant to her. Lucy is a naturally talented writer and has the ability to put her thoughts and emotions down on paper with just the right feeling behind it all.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015. He had some time to spend with his newborn daughter before he physically left this earth.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Release Date: January 19, 2016
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