Caroline Knapp on this site
LET’S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME, A Memoir of Friendship
By Gail Caldwell
August 20, 2010
LET’S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME
A Memoir of Friendship
By Gail Caldwell
190 pp. Random House. $23
Earlier this year, I watched someone close to me die. A raw couple of weeks later, with the kind of timing that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or cry, our family dog suddenly had to be put down. In the days and weeks that followed, I heard myself trying to explain the awful, numbing collision of these two deaths, and I worried that I sounded at best ludicrous, at worst callous.
It says a lot for “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” Gail Caldwell’s ferociously anguished chronicle of her best friend’s terminal cancer, that it manages to be, among many other things, a properly intelligent examination of the way in which dogs can help heal our past, enhance and challenge our knowledge of ourselves, even shed light on the mysterious workings of the human soul. If female friendship is the beating heart of this book, then a bond with a dog is the vein of pure tenderness that runs through its pages. You feel that the women’s friendship would never have existed in quite the same way without this crucial, balancing canine element.
Caldwell and her friend Caroline Knapp had more than dogs in common when they met in the 1990s. Though nine years apart in age, they shared alcoholic pasts, an almost obsessive love of water (Caldwell swam, Knapp rowed) and successful careers as writers. Caldwell was (and still is) a respected literary critic, Knapp a columnist and the author of “Drinking: A Love Story,” a much-feted, daringly open memoir about her alcoholism.
They shared something else as well. While not exactly giving up on relationships with men (Knapp later married her on-again-off-again photographer boyfriend), these two strong, thoughtful, independent, middle-aged women were mainly concerned with regaining their self-respect and taking control. It was entirely appropriate that they took the first steps toward friendship while out walking their dogs because the intensity and seriousness with which they loved, trained and exercised those animals had (for the time being, at least) replaced some of the other possibilities, and certainly other relationships, in their lives.
Although there was nothing sexual about their friendship, it was in many crucial ways a love affair. Here were all the markers of a lifelong passion: their initial wariness of each other (they’d met at a party a few years earlier but had hardly hit it off); their shy, outdoor courtship (“Let’s take the long way home,” Knapp would say after a walk, so they could chat some more in the car); and finally Caldwell’s touchingly naked declaration, not far into the friendship, of “Oh no — I need you.” When Caldwell eventually manages to buy a house, it’s both amusing and somehow inevitable that Knapp rushes up and hoists her “like a sack of grain” over the threshold.
All the best qualities of the happiest and most resilient marriages are here. The in- jokes that no one else will get. The women’s willingness to take each other’s fears and neuroses seriously while at the same time gently demolishing them. The constant, fervent competition (“We named the cruel inner taskmaster we each possessed the Inner Marine”) tempered with the kinder knowledge that “when it came to matters of the soul and the psyche, we each knew how to tend to the other.” And the fact that both women ultimately shared and feared the “empty room in the heart that is the essence of addiction.”
But this was to be a romance without a happy ending. We learn right from the start that Knapp fell gravely ill with Stage IV lung cancer at 42, and that she had a sickeningly swift death. Maybe more startling, her dying doesn’t even form the book’s real dramatic climax. We’re still well short of the end when Caldwell grapples with “the suck and force of death,” sitting in Knapp’s cold and empty living room: “Here, in all its subcomfort temperatures and museumlike stillness, was Caroline, gone.”
Caldwell fills her final chapters with an event you would never predict. And though it is apparently unrelated, this terrifyingly apposite episode was so shocking (to me, anyway) that I won’t spoil its impact by even hinting at it. Yet it summons the dead woman’s spirit in a way no amount of reflective deathbed writing ever could, and left me intensely moved.
This demolition of expectations is another strength of Caldwell’s narrative. Long after the grief and dust have settled, a single joyful scene stays in my mind. The two women are laughing together, rolling around on the forest floor, attempting to train their dogs — “pack of four, we were, planting flags all over the province of our rearranged lives” — and Caldwell looks at Knapp and says, “You know — after all this, I don’t think that any man could ever treat me badly again.”
This may be a book about death and loss, but Caldwell’s greatest achievement is to rise above all that to describe both the very best that women can be together and the precious things they can, if they wish, give back to one another: power, humor, love and self-respect.
Julie Myerson’s latest book is “The Lost Child.”
LOS ANGELES TIMES
By Julia M. Klein, Special to the Los Angeles Times
September 1, 2010
Decades past high school, Gail
Caldwell had the luck to find a true best friend — a woman whose strengths and
weaknesses perfectly complemented her own. Then she endured the tragedy of
losing her, an ending that she shares at the beginning of her affecting new
grief memoir, "Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship."
Caldwell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for her work as chief book critic for the Boston Globe, beckons us into her story with lines that evoke Hemingway: "I had a friend," she writes, "and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too."
Caldwell's friend, Caroline
Knapp, was a columnist for the Boston Phoenix and the bestselling author of
several books. A graceful athlete who rowed Boston's Charles River with
obsessive fervor. A fellow dog lover. And, like Caldwell, who candidly details
her own addiction struggles in this memoir, a recovering alcoholic. Knapp had
also battled anorexia, while Caldwell was a polio survivor.
Both women had a history of stormy romantic relationships. In the past, they had even tangled with, and fled, the same man. When they met, they were both single, though Knapp had a longtime boyfriend who remained loyal and would eventually return.
According to Caldwell, the friends spent much of their time gamboling with their respective canines, taking long conversation-filled walks and drives (hence the memoir's title) and training each other in their respective sports. (Caldwell's forte was swimming.)
So close were they, Caldwell says, that they were frequently mistaken for sisters, lovers or even each other. One thinks of the mystical bonds between identical twins. Knapp actually had a twin sister, which Caldwell suggests may have fostered her capacity for intimacy.
In background and temperament, the two were easy to tell apart. Knapp, the more patrician, was a Cambridge, Mass., native, the orphaned daughter of a psychiatrist and an artist who had both been felled by cancer. She was tough, unassuming and reliable in a crisis — the more accepting and diplomatic of the two. Caldwell, descended from farm families who settled the Texas Panhandle, was eight years older, "dreamy, stubborn, and selectively fanatical."
But their mutual engagement was intense and seemingly charmed. "For years," Caldwell writes, "we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return." They urged each other on but also shielded each other from tendencies toward excess, from too-long walks or rowing in bad weather. "Each gave the other permission to lower the bar," says Caldwell.
Sports loom large in this book. At times, just reading about all that physical activity, which Caldwell recalls through a nostalgic haze, can seem exhausting. And the women's obsession with dogs, which encompassed classifying people they knew in terms of canine breeds, may not resonate as deeply for those without similar predilections.
What holds the reader in the end is the elegance and precision of Caldwell's prose, her stiletto-like way with words. And, of course, that the emotions she taps — the joy of communion with a soul mate, the devastation of unexpected loss — are universal. "Grief is what tells you who you are alone," Caldwell says, beautifully, and that solitude is something all the bereaved — in other words, all of us — will have to reckon with some day.
For Caldwell and Knapp, the end came much too quickly. After months of coughing, Knapp, a longtime heavy smoker in her early 40s, was diagnosed with inoperable, Stage 4 lung cancer. As her friends circled "like heartbroken hens," Caroline, Caldwell says, found herself "someplace past fear where I had never been." It is difficult to read the remainder of this memoir without tears.
But perhaps the best way to understand the magnitude of Caldwell's loss — and, it turns out, ours as well — is to pick up Knapp's classic 1996 memoir, "Drinking: A Love Story." I found mine on my bookshelf. It offered a perfectly honed account of Knapp's harrowing descent into alcoholism and its aftermath and revealed a woman I surely would have wanted to know.
One evening, I accidentally left the book behind on a chair at an upscale Philadelphia swim club famous for its copious open bar and hard-drinking regulars. To my considerable annoyance, it disappeared, and its fate remains unknown. But I am consoled — and I hope Caldwell is too — by the notion that Knapp's words, her legacy, may yet help change someone's life.
Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
Reviewed by Marian Botsford Fraser
Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, by Gail Caldwell, Random House, 186 pages, $25.95
There is no “best by” stamp on grief, and it is not entirely synonymous with mourning – the latter is more public, associated with rituals and ceremony. Grief is not something to be “worked through,” as bustling grief “consultants” would have classrooms full of tragedy-struck children do the day after their friends are killed. It is bundled with all the other unpredictable and deeply felt emotions like love and hate; it assails unbidden, in dreams, on a plane, while reading or writing a book. It goes on forever.
Gail Caldwell's friend Caroline Knapp died in 2002, a scant six weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Eight years later, Caldwell has finally written this lovely memoir about their friendship and the death of Caroline; as she notes, “It's taken me years to understand that dying doesn't end the story; it transforms it. Edits, rewrites, the blur and epiphany of one-way dialogue.”
Caldwell and Knapp were fiercely independent, competitive single women, both successful writers, both with thin, highly disciplined bodies (made thus by almost obsessive rowing and swimming, although to Caldwell's distress Knapp was a serious smoker).
They were also both recovering alcoholics, something that Knapp had written about frankly in a memoir called Drinking: A Love Story, but which Caldwell had never explored publicly until she realized it was a necessary element in this current book. Knapp was seven years younger, beautiful, and a high-profile columnist who laid bare her personal life in print; Caldwell was and still is a book critic (who won a Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism). They were of the generation of high-functioning, brilliant American women whose public achievements belied lifetimes of emotional insecurity, stupid relationships and essential therapists.
They were both unabashedly in love with their dogs, Caldwell's a Samoyed named Clementine, Knapp's a shepherd mix named Lucille. Their friendship began on a late-summer afternoon beside a duck pond in Cambridge, Mass., where they were both walking their dogs. (Knapp also wrote a book about their love of dogs.)
The dogs are strong characters in Caldwell's book and the rituals of dog-walking an essential element in the women's friendship over a too-brief span of six years. It is in the company of their dogs that Caldwell and Knapp reveal everything to one another, and lose the instinctive reserve that puts all their other relationship on leashes.
“So much of what we valued was being played out in those woods, in what we were building with the dogs and with each other. And so I looked at Caroline at the end of that fine day and said, ‘You know – after all this, I don't think any man could ever treat me badly again.'”
Caldwell writes with breathtaking clarity about what was an extraordinary friendship, almost a love affair, better than a marriage. It was not sexual, they never lived together, and both were intimately involved with men (Knapp married her long-time lover Morelli in the last weeks of her life).
But they seemed not to ever get enough of one another. Their days were spent apart, writing, rowing or swimming, reading, until late in the day one or other phoned and they put the dogs in a car to go to the pond. Like teenagers, they spent long hours together, then, as the title says, took the long way home so the “infinite conversation” could go on, and phoned one another once they were home. When Caldwell finally bought her first house, Knapp met her on the front porch the day she took possession, “And while Morelli held onto the dogs and laughed, she picked me up – I outweighed her by ten pounds – and hoisted me, like a sack of grain, over the threshold.”
But then Caroline died. Caldwell's description of the pain of mourning is precise and heartbreaking. She writes about trying on Caroline's clothes with confusion and guilt, the somehow obscene act of raking dead leaves and planting bulbs, and rowing until her hands were like leather, and seemingly, necessarily, going on living: “Like a starfish, the heart endures its amputation.”
Part of the appeal of Caldwell's graceful, eloquent book is what it says about the creative process and grief; writing is how writers grieve. Towards the end, after recounting Caroline's final 18 days in a coma, her death, the memorial service, the painful first year without her, the pathetic collection of memento mori (she still carries the keys to Caroline's house), Caldwell writes: “Yesterday I found a note I had written to myself, in the piles of outlines and narrative maps that are a writer's building blocks. ‘Let Her Die,' I had written at the top of a legal pad, a shorthand reminder to get to that part of the story … Let her die: a three-word definition of the arc of grief if I ever heard one and it takes a long time.”
Marian Botsford Fraser's most recent book is the memoir Requiem for My Brother.
'Let's Take the Long Way Home': Life, literature and dogs
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
Writer Caroline Knapp was 42 when she died, seven weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002.
She's best known for Drinking: A Love Story, her 1996 memoir about life as a "high-functioning alcoholic." But she also wrote Pack of Two (1998) on why people, including herself, are so attached to their dogs.
And it was dogs — not books — that connected Knapp with book critic Gail Caldwell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for her reviews at The Boston Globe.
Theirs is "an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too," Caldwell writes in the opening sentence of Let's Take the Long Way Home, a heartbreaker of a memoir.
If grief can ever be graceful, then Caldwell gracefully weaves a thread of stories that describe and ponder friendship and loss.
Caldwell, who was nine years older, writes of Knapp: "For years we had played the easy, daily catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and return. Now I was in the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone."
They first met at a party, but became friends walking their dogs in Cambridge, Mass. They were close for less than a decade, but made up for lost time:
"Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived," Caldwell writes. "Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation."
Both loved books. Each, coincidentally, had stopped drinking at 33. But it was their passion for their dogs (Knapp's shepherd mix and Caldwell's Samoyed) that built their common ground.
Wisely, Caldwell limits shop talk about writing. On meeting Knapp, she writes, "I was more interested in her dog than her book sales. So was she."
With humor and sadness, the memoir celebrates an intimacy between two strong-minded, single women — although Knapp married her on-and-off-again boyfriend while dying in the hospital.
Caldwell is at her best not about herself (her 2006 memoir, A Strong West Wind, already covers her rebellious childhood in the conservative Texas Panhandle) but about Knapp, her death and their dogs:
"Death is a divorce nobody asked for; to live through it is to find a way to disengage from what you thought you couldn't stand to lose."
Old dogs, she writes, "can be a regal sight. Their exuberance settles over the years into a seasoned nobility, their routines become as locked into yours as the quietest and kindest of marriages."
I suspect it's the kind of introspective book that will attract mostly women readers. If so, that's a shame. Men could learn from it.
"Men don't really understand women's friendships, do they?" Caldwell once asked another friend.
"Oh, God, no," the friend replied. "And we must never tell them."
But Caldwell does just that.
Gail Caldwell memoir, 'Let's Take the Long Way Home,' reviewed by Heller McAlpin
By Heller McAlpin
Sunday, August 22, 2010
LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME
A Memoir of Friendship
By Gail Caldwell
Random House. 190 pp. $23
You can shelve "Let's Take the Long Way Home," Gail Caldwell's beautifully written book about the best friend she lost to cancer in 2002, next to "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion's searing memoir about losing her husband to heart failure. But that's assuming it makes it to your shelf: This is a book you'll want to share with your own "necessary pillars of life," as Caldwell refers to her nearest and dearest.
What's the draw in reading about "unspeakable sorrow"? Well, despite Caldwell's assertion that "the only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course," sensitive portraits of love and loss stir our nobler, empathic feelings, reminding us of our possibilities -- and realities -- as human beings.
Actually, Caldwell's book is more heartwarming than devastating. It's about the joys of friendship as much as the ravages of "intolerable loss." She evokes the sort of soul mate most of us yearn for. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Boston Globe, Caldwell writes of meeting Caroline Knapp, a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, in the mid-1990s: "Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived."
They certainly had a lot in common: Both writers were exercise fanatics who were single by choice and temperament and worked at home. Each lived alone in Cambridge, Mass., with a beloved dog. Both were high strung, sensitive and thin. Caldwell, nearly nine years older, had grown up in the Texas Panhandle and survived not just a "family tree [with] a root system soggy with alcohol," but childhood polio that left her with a limp. She had "given up a lot of what didn't work," including cigarettes, and was disturbed that Knapp, who had beaten anorexia and was the daughter of a Cambridge psychoanalyst, continued to smoke until shortly before her diagnosis with stage four lung cancer.
An even deeper connection was their shared history of alcoholism -- "that empty room in the heart that is the essence of addiction." Both had stopped drinking in their early 30s, a fact Caldwell gleaned from Knapp's forthright 1996 memoir, "Drinking: a Love Story," before they became close. Caldwell had told few people about her sodden past. She writes about her alcoholism for the first time, partly because of its importance to her link with Knapp. "I used to think this was an awful story -- shameful and dramatic and sad. I don't think that anymore. Now I just think it's human, which is why I decided to tell it."
The two women bonded over their dogs, which they took on rambling, bucolic, "analytic walks." They had "endless conversations about whether we were living our lives correctly," discussions they prolonged by deliberately taking the long way home. In "Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs" (1999), Knapp described these walks as "one of the most sustaining aspects of my life, weekly shots to the soul of connection and laughter."
Together, the two women were "the merry recluse" and "the cheerful depressive" who "named the cruel inner taskmaster we each possessed the Inner Marine" and "gave the other permission to lower the bar." Caldwell introduced Knapp to the joys of swimming laps, while Knapp initiated Caldwell into rowing on the Charles River. How's this for an elegant description of how a supportive friend helps you blossom? "The dailiness of our alliance was both muted and essential: We were the lattice that made room for the rose."
If you want a great memoir written about you, it helps if you're close to a writer: Trite as it sounds, writers process life by writing about it. As Caldwell comments, writing about Knapp years after her death helped provide "a happy limbo in which I have brought her along on the journey." Boswell's "Life of Johnson" may be the mother of all friendship biographies; Caldwell's memoir is more akin to the recent spate of tributes to writer- spouses, including Didion's "Magical Thinking," John Bayley's "Elegy for Iris" and Donald Hall's "Without," along with Ann Patchett's "Truth and Beauty," about her intense friendship with writer Lucy Grealy.
Caldwell is aware that she's telling "an old, old story": "I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too," she opens, noting later that "it's taken years for me to understand that dying doesn't end the story; it transforms it." Actually, what transforms the story is a combination of fearlessness and grace. Caldwell dares to ask, "What if dying weren't a bad thing?" and concludes, "Caroline's death had left me with a great and terrible gift: how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight." Her memoir, a tribute to the enduring power of friendship, is a lovely gift to readers.
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, September 5, 2010
"It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too." What a first line, as irresistible and urgent as roadside neon. Gail Caldwell draws her reader into "Let's Take the Long Way Home," the account of her six-year friendship with the author Caroline Knapp, who died in 2002 at age 42.
I defy you to turn back after that opening sentence, with its echoes of Knapp herself, whose accomplished memoir of alcoholism, "Drinking: A Love Story," begins, "It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out."
Is Caldwell summoning her friend's spirit straight away, in literary form, to advance the conversation she and Knapp never got to finish? Or is her echo unconscious, a testament to the elusive depths of intimacy and influence? Either way, the friends' bond is evident. Caldwell documents the friendship between these two writers, both single, both recovering alcoholics. These shared factors contribute to their connection, but it is their passion for their respective dogs and for rowing that elevates the relationship to a higher plane, a hallowed preserve many friendships strive for but few achieve.
Caldwell, Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Boston Globe and author of the memoir "A Strong West Wind," tells us so. "From the beginning," she writes, "there was something intangible and even spooky about us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other's name." They need each other, she informs us. "Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation."
They row the Charles River. They meet to walk the dogs. They have long conversations. They bring out the best in each other. They challenge each other. When Caldwell buys a house, Knapp carries her over the threshold. Once, they argue.
"I suppose every friendship has such indicators - the checks and balances of the relationship that make it stronger or more generous than you alone," Caldwell ruminates, pausing as she often does to sum everything up. "For both of us, in different ways, the volume of the world had been turned up a notch. Whether this sensitivity functioned as a failing or an asset, I think we recognized it in each other from the start."
Caldwell favors broad pronouncements, which punctuate her narrative frequently. Generalizations threaten to undermine the grace of a book that tackles friend-love and human grief. I wish the author, in her brave undertaking, had adhered to the precision and simplicity of her opening. In a characteristic passage she states, "And yet I find now that writing about a friendship that flourished within the realm of connection and routine has all the components of trying to capture air. The dailiness of our alliance was both muted and essential: We were the lattice that made room for the rose." Memoir at its best can either transcend that dailiness or investigate it minutely, yet Caldwell never seems to find her way. If she describes walking the dogs once, she describes it half a dozen times, in not very different terms. Rowing, too.
Knapp is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and dies. Caldwell writes movingly of grief, finding lovely, quiet details to convey its hold and prison. She offers us a rich, deep and powerful friendship with someone who seems to have been a lively and complicated person.
Taken as a whole, "Let's Take the Long Way Home" is a smart writer's universal look at how two people connect, but at times it feels as over-full as a blog, as neat as a magazine article. Caldwell can't be blamed for having too much to say about her dear friend, but I kept wishing she had chosen the shapely, exquisite moment more often.
As the book ends, Caldwell acknowledges that there are plenty of worldly events that throw "my own life into the panoramic mists where it belong[s]." Taken with her introduction of "It's an old, old story," the reader may feel that the author, oddly, seeks to dismiss the power unique to memoir: a very, very particular story, never told before.
Susanna Sonnenberg is the author of "Her Last Death: A Memoir.".
Mining the depths of grief, memory
By Judy Bolton-Fasman
February 17, 2010
LET’S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME: A Memoir of Friendship By Gail Caldwell
Random House, 186 pp., $24.95
As Gail Caldwell writes at the outset of her stunning new memoir: “It’s an old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that.’’
Anyone who has lived through the death of a soulmate may be tempted to punctuate Caldwell’s unadorned sentence with a mournful “amen.’’ In “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,’’ Caldwell, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and former book critic for The Globe, has written a gorgeous and extended prayer of mourning for her friend and fellow writer Caroline Knapp.
Knapp, who was also a fine memoirist, chronicled her struggle with alcoholism in “Drinking: A Love Story.’’ In a second memoir Knapp wrote about the immutable lessons she learned from her dog Lucille in “Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs.’’ She died in June 2002 from lung cancer at the age of 42.
Reeling from her friend’s death, Caldwell matter-of-factly yet profoundly notes, “Death is a cliche until you’re in it.’’ Yet there is nothing cliched or maudlin about the unexpectedly intense and moving friendship these two women forged in middle age. Although the book begins with Knapp’s death, Caldwell chronologically and gracefully unfurls the story of their relationship.
For Caldwell, Knapp embodied the ideal imaginary friend, but “funnier and better than you conceived.’’ These women also bonded over a passion for their dogs. Clementine, a gorgeous Samoyed the color of fresh snow, and Lucille, a small German shepherd mix, belonged respectively to Caldwell and Knapp.
Friendship between the women and their beloved canines took root during their long walks around Fresh Pond. Their relationship blossomed as they shared details of their hard-won battles against the bottle. They also had an enthusiasm bordering on zeal for rowing on the Charles River. Similarly, they thrived in the singular, intense life of a writer. They kept sight of each other even as they often existed on “parallel tracks’’ in time and space.
This is a book about a death muted by the beauty of human connection. At its core, “The Long Way Home’’ is a book of such crystalline truth that it makes the heart ache. “What they never tell you about grief,’’ Caldwell writes, “is that missing someone is the simple part.’’
In a life fine-tuned by the grief and memory of a beloved friend’s death, small details take on talismanic powers. Caldwell can’t bear to throw out her set of keys to Knapp’s house. These are keys “to locks and doors that no longer exist, and I keep them in my glove compartment, where they have been moved from one car to another in the past couple of years.’’
The language and gestures of intimacy that existed between Caldwell and Knapp were so highly idiosyncratic they resisted translation. “Our trust allowed for a shorthand that let us get to the point quickly.’’ Caldwell also describes necessarily bumping up against a counterintuitive notion of intimacy. After Knapp’s death she appreciated that the “grit and discomfort’’ of their relationship also indicated their closeness.
Maybe the story of Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp’s friendship is an old story. But it is also a holy story. A familiar yet emotionally complex story that can bring a reader to tears.
Judy Bolton-Fasman is a columnist for The Jewish Advocate.
Sunday, Aug 1, 2010 19:01 ET
Grief memoirs are always a bit startling when they come from a familiar writer. The voice that usually tells you about movies or politics or California is suddenly talking about the private, terrible thing you thought, irrationally, was yours alone. If the memoir is all you know of the writer, then he's that man whose wife died or she's that woman whose father killed himself. But when Joan Didion writes about losing her husband in "The Year of Magical Thinking," we understand that neither talent nor success -- not even legendary literary sang froid -- is talisman against it: Sooner or later every one of us is that man or that woman.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Gail Caldwell observes in her new memoir, "Let's Take the Long Way Home," profound grief, like the pain of childbirth, is something we're mostly "wired to forget" because we couldn't go on if we knew it was waiting for us out there somewhere. "Remembering the suck and force of death," she writes, "is like trying to hold water in your hand." Emotionally, it's another country, one we hope to visit rarely. And so, when we do arrive on its shore, we're foolishly amazed to learn that some literary idol like Didion or C.S. Lewis has been there, too, and can describe it so exactly. In better times, we give their memoirs to bereaved friends because these books can provide them with a kind of companionship that we, for all our sympathy, can only offer from afar.
"Let's Take the Long Way Home" is not like most grief memoirs in one important respect: It's about losing a friend, not a parent, child, sibling or spouse. Caldwell's best friend, the writer Caroline Knapp, died within weeks of being diagnosed with cancer in 2002; she was 43. While Caldwell describes this in the book's opening sentence as "an old, old story," it's also a new one because the friendship between Knapp and Caldwell was the product of unprecedented historical conditions. Both women were single by choice, living happily alone (Knapp once wrote an essay for Salon titled "The Merry Recluse"), and devoted to their vocations.
That doesn't mean either was isolated. At one point, Caldwell recalls how, in the days after Knapp's death, she comforted herself by making a list of her surviving close friends and posting it on her refrigerator: "These were the people I could call at three a.m.," she explains. "I never called anyone at three a.m., probably because I had the list." If Knapp had once been the first name on that list, she was never the only one.
The current age suffers from a failure of the imagination when it comes to intimacy between people linked by neither blood nor sex. Knapp and Caldwell first bonded as fellow dog owners and over the next six years they met up every few days to walk their dogs together and talk for hours. (The title refers to something Knapp would say in the car on the way home, a way of prolonging the conversation.) "Finding Caroline," Caldwell writes, "was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived." Although Caldwell still had both parents, back in Texas, and Knapp had her twin sister and an on-again/off-again lover they both referred to as "the last good boyfriend in America," they spent holidays and summer vacations together. After Knapp died, Caldwell "suspected no one would ever know me so well again."
Sociologists sometimes describe what Caldwell and Knapp had together as a "family of choice," and most of "Let's Take the Long Way Home" recalls how they made this miracle together. Caldwell was a decade older, an adventurous Westerner transplanted to Cambridge, Mass., book critic for the Boston Globe and an inveterate rule-breaker. Knapp, the good girl in the duo, was the daughter of a psychiatrist and an artist and had stayed in her hometown. She'd survived anorexia and alcoholism, and wrote a celebrated memoir about the latter. A history of alcoholism was something the two women had in common, although Caldwell rarely shared this fact with anyone besides fellow AA members. Both women were writers, of course, with a ravenous appetite for solitude, but also, as "Let's Take the Long Way Home" demonstrates, a great talent for friendship.
Caldwell's writing is serene, wry and meditative, rather than raw, but even so, it's clear she lost one of the most important relationships in her life when Knapp died. I half expected that someone would carelessly wind up offending her by not taking it seriously enough -- after all, the two women were "just" friends. To my surprise, the only person who ever tried to do this was Caldwell herself, who in the confusion and doubt of mourning would sometimes say, "Oh well, maybe we weren't that close." Anyone who heard this, she reports, "would burst out laughing."
"Let's Take the Long Way Home" is a slender and beautiful book, and if Caldwell's language occasionally fogs up with immaterialities, she never stoops to tear-jerking or sentiment. Which is not to say she won't make you cry. It might be something as simple as her first-page description of love's tempo that does it: "For years," she writes, "we had played the easy daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and return." Anyone who's ever had that and lost it -- or can imagine what it might feel like to lose it -- will recognize how precious it is. The losing isn't the exceptional part of this story; everyone loses something, sooner or later. The wonder lies in finding it in the first place.
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.
The CHRISTIAN SCIENCE
M O N I T O R
How do you say goodbye to a once-in-a-lifetime friendship?
The chief heartache of Gail Caldwell’s love letter of a memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, is also its main subject: The person she wrote it for will never be able to read it.
“I was 51 when Caroline died, and by that point in life you should have gone to enough funerals to be able to quote the verses from Ecclesiastes by heart,” Caldwell writes, but Caroline Knapp was the first person she lost who was irreplaceable in her life.
Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former chief book critic for The Boston Globe, met Knapp, a columnist with the Boston Phoenix, in 1996.
Both women gave up drinking at 33 (Knapp’s memoir is titled “Drinking: A Love Story”); both had to overcome physical challenges in their youth, polio for Caldwell and anorexia for Knapp; both adored dogs and loved the water. Caldwell swam and Knapp rowed, and each taught the other her sport.
The similarities extended to owning the same pieces of clothing and discovering that both had, at different times, dated the same man. (He wasn’t a keeper for either. Caldwell sums up her love life thus: “Reader, I moved on.”)
Both were introverts, to the point where a potluck dinner would cause Knapp a week’s worth of anxiety. Caldwell dubs herself “the gregarious hermit,” while Knapp said, “I’m a merry recluse!” As a result, they valued each other deeply.
“Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived,” Caldwell writes.
The two developed the kind of bosom friendship that Anne Shirley longed for in “Anne of Green Gables” and most of us rarely find. They walked their dogs, Clementine and Lucille, together around Fresh Pond; rowed together on the Charles River; vacationed together in New Hampshire and on Cape Cod, even after Knapp reunited with the man she would marry; and they talked to each other every day.
“ ‘What are you doing?’ I would say in the early afternoon, when I called after the writing hours were done and before the walking ones began. ‘Waiting for you to call,’ she would answer, half kidding....”
It’s common to say that people didn’t have enough time together, but they really didn’t. In 2002, Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Caldwell was there when the doctors pronounced “the obscene euphemism that telegraphs the end: ‘We can make her more comfortable.’ ”
“Let’s Take the Long Way Home” isn’t a devastating examination of grief in the way of Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking,” now perhaps the most purchased book for handing out at funerals.
Caldwell is not a wallower as a writer, and that, plus the memoir’s slim size should help readers prone to waterworks. (I’ll cry at commercials, so I was doomed from the prologue.)
In addition to honoring Knapp’s friendship, Caldwell also discusses her own battle with alcoholism and spends a good bit of time talking about a subject dear to both friends’ hearts: dog-training. (Personally, I could have used another couple of chapters about dogs as a buffer.) Once she reaches the pages about Knapp’s death, Caldwell summons up an incisive emotional clarity about a subject from which many Americans instinctively shy away.
“The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course,” Caldwell says. Of the time immediately after Knapp’s death, she remembers thinking, “If only I could get to sorrow, I thought, I could do sorrow. I wasn’t ready for the sheer physicality of it, the lead-lined overcoat of dull pain it would take months to shake.”
The friends who come to eat the vat of black beans Caldwell makes after Knapp’s death help, and so do poets from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Anne Sexton to Pablo Neruda.
“I still have my set of keys to her house, to locks and doors that no longer exist, and I keep them in my glove compartment, where they have been moved from one car to another in the past couple of years,” she writes. “Someday I will throw them in the Charles, where I lost the seat to her boat and so much else.”
“Everything about death is a cliché until you’re in it,” Caldwell writes. That may be true, but very little about this gift of a book would qualify.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
By John Repp
"It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too."
So begins Gail Caldwell's book-length elegy for writer Caroline Knapp, who died at 42 of lung cancer in 2002. It is an eloquent treatment of the passions the two shared -- writing, reading, dogs, rowing, privacy, swimming -- and the pains they each suffered -- alcoholism; the wages of solitude; and lingering grief over the deaths of beloved parents.
Caldwell, longtime chief book critic of The Boston Globe and author of the 2006 memoir "A Strong West Wind," is lucid and direct, writing "I was able to be effusive and warm in my human interactions because I knew when and how they would end: end of day, end of party, end of walk, end of relationship."
She is particularly good with a rendering of her alcohol addiction that matches in quality -- though at much shorter length -- Knapp's widely praised best seller, "Drinking: A Love Story."
Above all, most of "Let's Take the Long Way Home" comprises a moving account of Caldwell's grief for her friend. All along, she avoids easy consolation or cheap sentiment:
"Until Caroline died I had belonged to that other world, the place of innocence and linear expectations, where I thought grief was a simple, wrenching realm of sadness and longing that gradually receded. What that definition left out was the body blow that loss inflicts, as well as the temporary madness, and a range of less straightforward emotions shocking in their intensity."
No grief duplicates any other, but Caldwell draws near to a state that lies by its nature beyond language.
No friendship duplicates any other, either, and now here is the assessment that I can no longer avoid: The bond this book wants to celebrate is too seldom alive in these pages, and the Caroline Knapp at its center, who so entranced Caldwell, is similarly elusive.
We get striking images and flashes of insight, but Knapp never quite seems real because we experience few dramatized instances of how baffling and difficult Caldwell says her friend could be. Almost daily, the two share long walks with their beloved dogs, but we don't witness the full texture of conversation or play or contented silence between them.
The book needs more scenes like the opening vacation tableau during which Caldwell and Knapp "swap sports: I would give her swimming lessons and she would teach me how to row."
After I finished "Let's Take the Long Way Home," I remembered a sentence from Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," another book that eloquently fails to do complete justice to a loved one:
"It is always those we live with and love and should know who elude us."
John Repp is a critic, writer and professor in Erie, Pa.
SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS NEWS
By Yvette Benavides - Special to the Express-News
LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME
BY GAIL CALDWELL
RANDOM HOUSE, $23
Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Gail Caldwell implies something profound in her memoir when she notes that we are "wired to forget" grief — or else we couldn't go on.
The grief in the book comes from a number of places. It is foremost a memoir of Caldwell's friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp.
Knapp became an overnight sensation in 1996 with "Drinking: A Love Story."
Caldwell was already a veteran writer, several years Knapp's senior, when they met, introduced by a dog trainer, a mutual friend who thought they'd hit it off. And they did, becoming as close as sisters.
The memoir's main motif is that we are all vulnerable to loss — that it steals away the best part of our lives. Even the most mundane events shift to something unrecognizable with the loss of a loved one.
For the first time, Caldwell writes at length about her own alcoholism in "Long Way Home."
Besides alcoholism, the women also had in common abusive relationships with men and a need for acceptance from family, especially their fathers.
We learn that if their shared pasts with alcohol infused in each of them the belief that we all have the ability to change.
In their sobriety and with the new friendship, the women spend inordinate amounts of time outdoors. Over a period of five years they row along in a rower's paradise — on the labyrinthine Charles River. The women row and they swim and they walk their dogs when they are not writing alone, each in her own mutually respected space.
Knapp's illness comes all of a sudden and takes her life in a few weeks.
Caldwell's writing becomes infused with pain. Knapp's slow descent into a blur of IVs and radiation, chemotherapy and morphine drips is a hurry-up-and-wait prospect that leaves Caldwell and Knapp's siblings and Knapp's new husband Mark Morelli at a loss.
For the two writers silence was very important, but so was talking. Caldwell figures that they'd spent "years talking — talking when other people would have given up, teasing apart feelings and conversations and the intricacies of daily life." But now Knapp couldn't talk anymore. Writes Caldwell, "Our narrative became a choreography of silence. I would spend hours at the end of her bed, not knowing much of the time if she even knew I was there. But Caroline and I had begun our friendship with a bond devoted to the elegant truths of nonverbal language: the physicality and hand signals and eye contact that dialogue with an animal entailed."
The narrative returns to the quiet companionship of the beloved canine. This is Caldwell's safety net. She drops into it again and again, wobbly but safely suspended.
When Knapp dies, Caldwell mourns intensely. But she realizes at some point that she will survive it. She writes, "Like a starfish, the heart endures its amputation."
Caldwell lost her best friend, but that she ever found her to begin with, that they could cultivate such an immutable bond, is the real story here.
Yvette Benavides is a professor of English at Our Lady of the Lake University.