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Review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home,
A Memoir of Friendship

by Gail Caldwell

The Globe and Mail
August, 2010

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 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 dogwalking 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 longtime 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 eighteen 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.”