Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

Man oh man, I've been busy lately. Family, work, and all the usual adjustments to such have eaten up a good chunk of my reading time. Have no fear, though, I haven't abandoned my mission to document the best books I've ever read. Though my posts may be few and far between, I'm still here, weighing what belongs and what doesn't.

One book that definitely belongs on this list is Gail Caldwell's memoir of friendship, Let's Take the Long Way Home. Literary critic Caldwell was a great friend of Caroline Knapp, best known for her own memoir, Drinking: A Love Story. The two don't quite hit it off at first, but are later drawn together by a mutual love of dogs and literature. Knapp and Caldwell also share hard-won victories over alcoholism. Both unmarried, independent career women, these two authors become each other's family, as good friends so often do. The stories of them sculling and dog walking together show how the friendship grows into a deep, lasting bond. But Knapp, a lifelong smoker, falls terminally ill with lung cancer, and Caldwell must weather this storm both with her, and, later, without her.

At its heart, this memoir is a love story, because a rich friendship like this one could not be anything but love. Where family fails us, friendship sails in and saves. A good friend brings us food when we're sick, reassures us we're okay, lets us cry on her shoulder. The best female friend is an amalgam of the most desirable traits of mother and father, brother and sister, and, yes, husband. Gail Caldwell pays homage to the wholeness a good friend brings to life.

However, Let's Take the Long Way Home is just as much about grief as friendship. I've never read a more concise, whip-sharp discussion of the grieving process. Caldwell is a good writer, and she brings the full force of her narrative power to analyze the mystery and misery of losing a loved one. I prefer her vignettes to those in Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Awe permeates Caldwell's prose: praise for Knapp and the life she lived, stunned wonder at her quick death, and thanksgiving over and over again for what they had together. By the memoir's end, the reader gets the sense that Caldwell is moving closer to some sort of understanding of death, an inchoate one to be sure, but an understanding nevertheless.