This book is one of the most depressing and pessimistic books I have ever had the misfortune to read. Fortunately, I borrowed it from the library - having finished it, I wouldn't have it in my house.
This is not to say that, purely from the perspective of language and construction, it is not largely well-written, although the numerous rather self-conscious attributions to largely obscure personalities (intellectuals all, no doubt) interrupt the flow at times. Rather, it is the lack of insight into character - Rieff's and his mother's - that leaves me cold.
I have to emphasize that I am not a disciple of Susan Sontag - I think that is the appropriate word. In general, I tend to distrust people who claim, by dint of superior intelligence, education, or reasoning power, to have some special avenue to "the truth", particularly when they broadcast it as widely as she did. All she really provided was (usually) well-reasoned opinion.
I prefer evidence of wisdom. And I do not believe that she was wise.
She loved life? Well - in truth - most of us do. No. She was PASSIONATE about life. Well - many of us are, though we may express that passion differently than she did. We all fear death? Well - no, we don't. Not in the way she did. I don't accept that her overwhelming fear of death - and apparently her son's, for that matter - sprang solely from her putative passion for life.
The living always fail the dying? Well - no, they don't. Sometimes, the dying fail the living.
Where is the personal responsibility in all this rending of cloth?
Rieff maintains that to have told his mother that she was terminally ill would have sent her spiraling into an abyss of despair and madness. But where has she sent him? Most of us of a certain age have lost one or both parents and other loved ones, sometimes to protracted and painful illnesses. But almost four years after the event, Rieff is obviously still in his own pit of despair (if not madness). Is this an appropriate legacy for a mother to leave a son?
What I find most ironic about this book is that, although Rieff makes reference on a number of occasions to Jerome Groopman, M.D., calling him a family friend, he seems to be peculiarly ignorant of Groopman's own views. Groopman, himself a deeply religious man, has written several books based on his personal experience with illness, and experiences with patients who know themselves to be terminally ill. He has a unique idea of what constitutes "hope", and how "hopeful" dying patients can be - not about cure, or even remission, but about whatever they themselves define as hope when given the opportunity. Rieff should remember the source of the title of Groopman's first book, The Measure of Our Days: "So teach us the measure of our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90). Even better - he should read it.