By Heller McAlpin
Sunday, August 22, 2010; B06
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.