Rating:Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, by Gail Caldwell. Random House (2010), 190 pages.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home is Caldwell’s story of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp who died of cancer in 2002. Their shared experiences—both were recovering alcoholics, writers, passionate and devoted swimmers and rowers, and lovers of dogs—make their transformation from acquaintances to lifelong, devoted best friends seem inevitable.
Caldwell writes with a poetic sensibility—her sentences are beautifully crafted jewels that beg to be re-read just for the pleasure of hearing the words and how perfectly they fit together. But this kind of writing has some drawbacks for the kind of reader who is interested in hearing a story told. There is an immediacy, a presence in the moment that pulls the reader into wanting to know more, that is is lacking here. I only fully became aware of this problem in the last twenty-five pages where Caldwell writes of an attack on her beloved dog Clementine. Suddenly I was jolted awake (having not realized I had been half asleep) as the scene came alive in a way that had been completely missing in the previous pages. Compare for example the first excerpt (which is how the entire book reads excluding the dog attack) with the second:
I know now that we never get over great loses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures. Sometimes I think that the pain is what yields the solution. Grief and memory create their own narrative: This is the shining truth at the heart of Freud and Neruda and every war story ever told. The death mandates and gives rise to the story for the same reason that ancient tribes used to bury flowers with their dead. We tell the story to get them back, to capture the traces of footfalls through the snow.
* * *
We had just come out of the woods onto the edge of the soccer field when I heard a man yell, “Get your dog!” Clemmie was next to me, unleashed, and we both stopped in our tracks, partly in response to the alarm in the man’s voice. About ten yards away, by the bleachers, I saw a young muscle-bound man crouched on the ground, trying desperately to hold on to two pit bulls without collars or leashes. A second later the dogs broke free of his grip and came hurtling toward us. The larger dog, a gray-white male, knocked Clementine to the ground and grabbed her by the neck; the other dog went for her hindquarters.
I don’t think the difference in these two excerpts is simply due to the inherent drama of the second. It is, rather, in authorial distance vs. closeness to the actions taking place and her feelings about them. I expect, of course, when reading about grief and loss, a certain amount of philosophical musing and reminiscing. But (with the exception of the dog attack) this kind of writing encompasses the entire book. Whether Caldwell is writing about rowing or swimming or walking in the woods with the dogs, every paragraph is awash in a reverie that has the effect of throwing a gauzy drapery over the entire scene. I can’t really see or feel anything that is happening. I am never there with her.
As is the case, I imagine, with many readers of this book, my interest in it arose out of my love for her friend Knapp’s books, Pack of Two and Drinking: A Love Story. Because of this I hoped to learn something more about Knapp: about her life, her dog Lucille, anything really that Caldwell wanted to share. Unfortunately the book fails completely in this respect, and though this may be an unfair criticism, since that is clearly not the book Caldwell intended to write, I still feel disappointed.
I couldn’t help but compare her work to another memoir of a friendship between two women writers, Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty, in which Patchett writes about both her loss of Lucy Grealy and their life together in a way that is so alive I feel as though I know them both intimately. This is what is missing in Caldwell’s memoir. If what you enjoy is poetry, however, and lovely abstractions a la Annie Dillard, this is a fine book and one that deserves the accolades it will most likely receive.