Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
2010 Random House
Finished on 3/15/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
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 this gorgeous memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell, a testament to the power of friendship, a story of how an extraordinary bond between two women can illuminate the loneliest, funniest, hardest moments in life, including the final and ultimate challenge.
They met over their dogs. Both writers, Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp (the author of Drinking: A Love Story) became best friends, talking about everything from their shared history of a struggle with alcohol, to their relationships with men and colleagues, to their love of books. They walked the woods of New England and rowed on the Charles River, and the miles they logged on land and water became a measure of the interior ground they covered. From disparate backgrounds but with striking emotional similarities, these two private, fiercely self-reliant women created an attachment more profound than either of them could ever have foreseen.
Rich with the joys of raising dogs and the rivalries of competitive sports, their friendship helped them define the ordinary moments of life as the ones worth cherishing. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
With her signature exquisite prose, Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion and grief in this moving memoir about treasuring and losing a best friend, and about coming of age, in the middle of life. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a celebration of life and of the transformations that come from intimate connection—and it affirms, once again, why Gail Caldwell is recognized as one of our bravest and most honest literary voices.
I love a good memoir—especially one to which I can relate—whether it be about marriage, raising children, cooking or, in this case, women’s friendships, dogs, and grief. After reading Wendy’s glowing review for Let’s Take the Long Way Home, my interest was piqued and I was happy when I stumbled upon a copy in a used bookstore. Taking a break from my self-imposed March Mystery Madness challenge, I went to my shelves in search of something that might be quick to fall into. Caldwell’s memoir fit the bill, as it was both quick to start and held my interest from cover to cover.
I should forewarn you, dear reader, that this post is quite heavy on quotes. Feel free to scroll to the bottom for my final thoughts, if you prefer not to read the passages I was compelled to record.
This passage brings to mind my dear friend, Bellezza. While we’ve never met in person, we share a passion for biking, as well as for being out on the water in kayaks or canoes. If we lived near one another, I know we’d spend a lot of time together on the trails and lakes.
One of the things we loved about rowing was its near mystical beauty—the strokes cresting across the water, the shimmering quiet of the row itself. Days after her death, I dreamed that the two of us were standing together in a dark boathouse, its only light source a line of incandescent blue sculls that hung above us like a wash of constellations. In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.On being fortysomething, a lover of both books and dogs.
I had just navigated my own crossroads. I was in my early forties, at an age when the view from the hill can be clear and poignant both. The imagined vistas have become realized paths, and I think you may live in the present during those years more than any time since childhood. I’d spent my thirties in a big-city newsroom where adrenaline and testosterone were as pervasive as deadlines, and I’d recently given up a stint as book review editor to go back to my ordinary job as book critic for The Boston Globe. This transition, as well as the recent shifts in technology, allowed me to work from home and hang around with the dog, who quickly learned that reading was my equivalent of chewing on a bone. I had long thought that the gods had handed me work tailor-made for my idiosyncrasies: I was too opinionated to be a straight news reporter, too gadabout to be an academic. I was dreamy, stubborn, and selectively fanatical; my idea of a productive day, as both a child and an adult, was reading for hours and staring out the window. It was my good fortune that I had found an occupation requiring just these talents; now, with Clementine, I could spend whole days in near silence, reading or writing or speaking in the simpler, heart-sure vernacular of human-to-dog.On grief:
The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course. 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. I would move as though I were underwater for weeks, maybe months, but those first few days between the death and the memorial service were a dazed cascade of tears and surprises. A part of me went through the appropriate motions with frightening alacrity: finding the poem to read at the chapel on Friday morning, practicing it aloud. But another part of me had the simple conviction that I wouldn’t be able to get from point A to point B—that giving her over, in spirit and in public, was as perplexing and unfathomable as string theory. My old friend Pete, out of town when she died, called from Ohio to see how I was. I told him what I had been afraid to say. “I don’t think I can do it,” I said about getting through the service the next day. “I don’t know how to do it.”and
He was quiet for a minute, and then he said something of such consolation that I will hear him saying it forever. “You know, Gail,” he said, “we’ve been doing this as a species for a long time. And it’s almost as if—it’s like the body just knows what to do.”
The ravages of early grief are such a shock: wild, erratic, disconsolate. 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. Whatever I thought I knew about loss—what I had anticipated about the After Caroline state, when the fear would be over, the worrying ceased—I had no inkling that it would mean deliverance into a new, immutable world. I lived in the reality of Caroline’s absence all the time, it seems, and yet sometimes the fact of it would nearly knock the wind out of me. One night a couple of weeks after the service I tried to make dinner for two friends, and I managed to get about half a meal together before I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. They sat there kindly before their Spartan plates of chicken and rice—I had forgotten to make anything else—and I excused myself and went into the kitchen and held on to the counter. She’s dead, I thought. The word itself was brutal. I had always disliked the euphemisms the culture embraced for dying: “gone,” “passed on,” “passed away.” They seemed avoidant and sentimental, a way to bleach the concept of death of its declarative force. Now I knew why we’d diluted the vocabulary. She’s dead.and
Hope in the beginning feels like such a violation of the loss, and yet without it we couldn’t survive. I had a friend who years before had lost her firstborn when he was an infant, and she told me one of the piercing consolations she received in her early grief was from a man who recognized the fierce loyalty one feels to the dead. “The real hell of this,” he told her, “is that you’re going to get through it.” Like a starfish, the heart endures its amputation.On old dogs:
Old dogs 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.
Final Thoughts: I never felt quite as invested in Gail’s story about her friendship with Caroline as I had hoped, but I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read the passages about her grief. I must admit I remained dry-eyed as I read the details about Knapp’s final days, but almost sobbed as I read about an attack on Caldwell and her dog. A beautiful and evocative memoir by a talented journalist who reminded me of the importance of friendship, both past and present. I’m anxious to give A Strong West Wind a read.
“Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a book which will stick with me. For those readers who are not afraid to open their hearts and immerse themselves in another person’s pain, but also their joy, this book is a must read.” (Wendy, from Caribousmom) Go here to read Wendy’s review in its entirety.