#BookReview: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

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Genre: Memoir

Pages: 256

Available in: Hardback. Paperback. E-book format

The Plot:

A young and brilliant Neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, on the threshold of a new life and career finds out he has Stage 4 Lung Cancer. A news which comes as a rude shock to him and his family. He decides to fight the disease and almost does, till it rears its ugly head again. Cancer wins round two.

Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed at the age of 36. He passed away a little before his 38th birthday. A promising life and future was cut short as the doctor became a patient and grappled with cancer, squeezing every precious moment out of life from his rapidly dwindling one. When he found out he was dying, Kalanithi decided to pen down his memoirs and we have this book. The book came to life even as his came to an end. Written from hospital beds and during long, lonely nights, it is a heart-breaking thought that this book remains incomplete, much like his Paul Kalanithi’s life.

My Thoughts:

Firstly, this is not a ‘sad’ book. If you haven’t read it yet don’t let the presumption, that a book about disease and dying must be sad, stop you from picking it up.

Paul Kalanithi was a Neurosurgeon and someone who always wanted to be a Writer. This book is proof that while he must have been brilliant as a doctor, he might as well have been a brilliant writer, if he had chosen to pursue it.

When Breath Becomes Air is an exquisitely written book. The writing is almost delicate, so much so that it makes one want to read it with care. Soaking in every word, pausing ever so often to think about a phrase as you imbibe it.

With all due respect, as the book is incomplete as Kalanithi succumbed to Cancer before he could finish it, the beautiful writing is what helped make reading a better experience. Parts of the book are memorable, like Paul’s note to his baby daughter, while the medical jargon and Operation Room talk and experiences are insipid. I didn’t think the book was preachy, nor was it profound and nor did it speak to me. I was left no wiser, about human life or the dreaded visitor called Death, after I read this book. Maybe the book would have taken a different turn if it was complete? Then again, maybe not.

My favourite parts in the book were about those about Kalanithi’s personal life. More so his relationship with his wife, Lucy. Lucy and Paul were going through a rough patch in their marriage when he was diagnosed. Ironically, a terminal disease infused new life into their marriage.

With every chapter I read my thoughts would go back to Lucy, I kept wondering what she may have gone through, caring for and loving a husband who had limited time. I wondered how she may have coped. Her afterword in the end answered all my questions Her emotions shared with us through words are so honest and so full of love for her husband and respect for their relationship that you can’t help but be moved by them.

Paul Kalanithi may no longer exist physically but he will live on, in the gratitude of the patients he saved as a doctor and through the words of his book. Click To Tweet

It is unfortunate that death gave Paul Kalanithi everything he wanted out of life.

P:S: Reviewing a book written by an author who is no more is a strange feeling. The sadness felt at a young life snuffed out too soon would have been felt even if this book wasn’t written and I had read about Paul Kalanithi in a newspaper or seen it on the news. If I let the sympathy I felt influence my review, then what is the point of writing one.

3 stars to When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My rating chart;

*Use it as a doorstop.
**Read it if you have nothing better to do.
***You will like it if you like this particular genre.
****Must read!
*****What! You haven’t read it YET?!

Spread the love


  1. The clarity that comes when you know your end is near is amazing. I would like to read this book.

    1. Do share your thoughts when you read it, Varsha.

  2. Appreciate your discerning skills as the reviewer of the book Mayuri. Getting overwhelmed was but easy and natural. But you stood as a stoic sage and let the emotion pass by to give complete justice to the review. Kudos to you for that!
    As for the book, I wish to lay my hands on it for sure

    1. Thanks, Anagha. I was bracing myself for a lot of flak, glad to read your kind words.

  3. Wow, hat’s off to you for not letting the sympathy get to you while doing the review.

    I was so consumed by this book that it tore me apart completely. I tear up even thinking of the story at times. Exactly why I do not want to do a review of this one.

    1. Thanks for reading, Soumya. The loss of a young life is indeed something that shakes one up.

  4. I read this book a year ago I think and like you because it was incomplete I felt that something was missing. Of course, it bothers you to know that this young life is already over. And I also loved the personal bits. Did you know that recently Lucy found love again with another man who lost his wife young and who had also written a dying memoir just like Paul. Talk about fate. Overall this book to me was something that spoke to me, some portions brilliant while others worth skipping.

    1. Glad to know that you thought the same as well, Rachna. So happy to know about Lucy. Let me google it to find out more. Thanks for reading.

  5. You are right buddy, I will read it because probably I like reading this genre. Your review has moved me and your honestly has left me impressed.

  6. I’ve been hearing a bit about this book and might need to read it soon. It sounds intriguing and I do love books that make me question life

    1. Then I have no doubts you would enjoy it, Sanch:)

  7. First of all, Mayuri, I loved your review of this book.
    This is the second time today that I am reading about this book, and now I am intrigued. I so want to read it for myself! Of course, it needn’t be considered a sad story, being written by a cancer patient and incomplete..Such stories, on the contrary, teach us how we can live our lives more fruitfully, more ‘fully’, because time is uncertain and it’s our duty to make full use of this short span of time we have been gifted!

    1. Thanks for reading, Shilpa:)

  8. Though your disclaimer about it not being a sad book is there, I dont think I would be picking it up anytime soon. Reading about a young death is sad; and somehow reading this book would make a connection with the deceased. Loved your to the point and tenacious review of the book Mayuri

    1. Thanks for reading,Shalini.

    2. Thanks for reading, Shalini 🙂

  9. It really needs extreme mental strength to write a book while in death bed, it will be tough for me to go through such a book which actually reveals the strength of human being but at the end it ends up with such a real life pathetic incident.

    1. Yes, life ebbing away is certainly sad. Thanks for your constant encouragement, Jyotirmoy.

  10. Glad to read the review , wud like to read the author who is no more in this world

    1. Thanks for reading, Monika:)

  11. I completely loved the book. It was the best book I read in 2016 (I think). It spoke to me in all its nuances and beauty. From Paul’s understanding of his situation to Lucy’s epilogue, every bit resonated with me.

    I also believe that each book calls differently to a reader. We bring our own experiences to bear when we read a book. It isn’t an easy book to review, that’s for sure. I doubt sympathy had anything to do with my review of it, though. Just utterly and totally loved the book.

    But of course, I respect your review. 🙂

    1. Hahahaahhaahahah! Hey, we can agree to disagree too, Shailaja! Thanks for reading!:)))

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