4.5 Muffins Book Reviews

Review of ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

I received When Breath Becomes Air from NetGalley, and I don’t usually read memoirs but I’m really interested in hospital fiction and I had heard really good things about this, and it did not disappoint!

Below is my review, plus a sneaky peak at the front cover and description and places to buy:

About The Book


‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live. 

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? 

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

My Review

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir about a neurosurgeon who develops a life changing form of cancer in the late stages of his surgical residency. The book follows him through his early life at school and how he decided what he wanted to qualify as, through his years as a surgical resident and how he battled with cancer. When he unfortunately dies before he can finish his story, his wife continues his unsaid words in the most beautiful way. There are some moments which got slightly confusing when he talks quite philosophically, but some parts where very eye opening and meaningful as well.

I don’t read memoirs often, but after reading this, I don’t know why that is. Kalanithi’s writing was so expressive and it didn’t feel forced or exaggerated in any way. I think it was also a more hard hitting read to know that everything actually happened in real life. The people within the story came to life for me through his writing, especially for us as readers who are unlikely to have met them.

I really enjoyed every part of this book, I don’t want to say I preferred on part over the other. Part 1 was so insightful, talking about his life before being diagnosed and how he would always work that little bit harder, push himself to achieve his goals. Part 2 showed how brave and determined he was to battle his cancer and continue to save lives as a surgeon. I think this part really made me think about how something like this can happen to anyone, and how we should take each day as it comes and live it to the full because we never know what’s round the corner. The whole book speaks to this, among many other, morals, and it is one that will stay with me for a long time. I must commend the epilogue as well, written by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, for her continuation of his story, both before and after he died, when he got to weak to write. Her writing made me sob uncontrollably, and, again, it was so hard hitting because it was true, but everything was described with such detail and compassionately written, it would be difficult for anyone to read it and come out the other end with a dry eye. To say that I’ve learnt something from this book would be an understatement. I think the easiest thing to do is read it and find out how many hidden  morals there really are within it.

I would definitely recommend this book, mainly to memoir lovers, or anyone who likes hospital fiction (guilty!) but also to people who are looking for a book to remember because of it’s meaning and the way it will change your life, maybe in such a subtle way that you don’t notice, but it’s there.

My Rating: 4.5 Muffins out of 5

Where To Buy

If you like the sound of the book, here is where you can buy the book (including, but not limited to):


The Book Depository

  Cover photo and description taken from Goodreads (view book profile here)

By bookmuffin

I like books and tea. MA Children's Literature student.

One reply on “Review of ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi”

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