It is hard to find the right words to write about When Breath Becomes Air. Although this memoir deals with tragic events, it carries a deep sense of hope and love for life that makes it complicated to grasp the shape of this book. My feelings oscillated between admiration, anguish and pain for this neurosurgeon who dedicated his life to understanding the meaning of life and caring for his patients in the most humane way possible. In his last year of residency, his health started to deteriorate until he discovered he suffered from a stage IV metastatic lung cancer.
However, the whole book does not revolve around this news and its consequences. The first part allows the reader to get to know Paul Kalanithi, to discover his story as a future neurosurgeon, his passion for life and death, and to follow his efforts on the path to becoming a doctor.
This first part, terribly interesting, keeps raising questions about the meaning and purpose of life, the writer trying to bring his own answers. These first hundred pages (or so) are tinged with tragedy, the reader knowing about Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s fate, thus intensifying the reading experience.
I might sound a bit overdramatic, but I have to say that I was quite sceptical before entering the book, Dr. Abraham Verghese’s foreword setting very high expectations. But he was right: Paul Kalanithi really did have a gift for writing and his book bears witness to his profound literary sensitivity.
You can imagine that these elements (an amazing writing and getting to know Paul Kalanithi) make it even more complicated to dive into the second part, pervaded by an atmosphere of sadness and despair. It was all down to me though: the writer never wallows on self-pity, on the contrary.
The main adjectives I would use to describe him would be (incredibly) kind and sensible, hardworking and brave. He never threw in the towel, never gave up on life, and always tried to do his best to make his life worth living, up until the end.
This book is much more than a memoir, it is a testimony about life’s fragility and beauty, a call for living more intensely – which doesn’t necessarily mean taking drugs, dancing all night long and travelling around the world.
Family, duty and the passion for taking care of others are at the heart of this gripping book. It is both cold and warm, sad and sparkling with joy. It’s about life.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
An absolute must-read for everyone.
About the book
Publisher: Penguin Books (Vintage)
Publication year: 2017
Page count: 256