Feature

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell

Caldwell's “slender and beautiful” memoir is about her friendship with Caroline Knapp, a writer who died of cancer several years ago at the age of 42.

(Random House, 208 pages, $23)

Gail Caldwell offers a great metaphor for real friendship in her “slender and beautiful” new memoir, said Laura Miller in Salon.com. “For years we had played the easy daily game of catch that intimate connection implies,” she writes of her relationship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp: “One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and return.” Knapp died of cancer several years ago, at age 42, and Caldwell initially apologizes that hers is an “old, old story.” But few tales of grief have addressed loss within a friendship between two single women living happy, fulfilling lives. Such lives, after all, weren’t typically possible a few decades ago. Besides, it matters little that losing someone isn’t unusual. Only Caldwell could make us appreciate what a wonder it is that such friendships can arise in our lives at all.

“It would be silly to suggest” that the sport of rowing provided this friendship’s glue, said Alex Beam in The Boston Globe. But the author uses it as one of several leitmotifs—along with writing, a love of dogs, and the two women’s personal histories with alcoholism—that convey their connection particularly effectively. Knapp, already a “master rower” when the two women met, gradually trains and coaches Caldwell up to her level. They both come to share a passion for the pastime. “If the water was perfect—glassy and still—we would drop anything to get on the river,” Caldwell writes. Knapp bequeathed her elite Van Nussen shell to Caldwell. In a closing scene, Caldwell rows it from Knapp’s old boathouse to her own, then steers the boat into the shadows, puts down her oars, and cries.

Don’t expect to read many scenes like that one, said Yvonne Zipp in TheChristianScienceMonitor.com. “Caldwell is not a wallower as a writer.” In fact, her generous book turns out to be less “a devastating examination of grief” than a vibrant, sustained celebration of life and friendship. In the end, the source of the deepest sadness in 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.”

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