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.
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.”
“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.