Let’s Take the Long Way Home
By Gail Caldwell
Random House, copyright 2010, 190 pages
Examined, Analyzed and & Reviewed by Marion Aldridge,
Sometimes I am tempted to recommend a book after reading a few pages or a few chapters, but that is always a dangerous practice. With Let’s Take the Long Way Home, I was tempted to post on Facebook my enchantment with this memoir after the first sentence: “It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.” After 20 pages, I was still reading and enraptured. After 75 pages, I had to restrain myself from pre-writing my review. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a truly lovely essay. I finished the book, and I am glad I did. Caldwell spoke to me, deliciously and deeply.
My best friend died four years ago today, so when I heard a radio interview with Gail Caldwell, I knew I wanted to buy this book, and attempt to read it. “Attempt” is the correct word because one person’s words do not necessarily describe another person’s pain or experience. I wasn’t sure whether this volume would resonate with me and my loss, or not. Who knows? Would she be too serious or too glib? Would she be too melodramatic or too full of answers? Would she be a cynic or despairing?
It turned out that I was safe in Gail Caldwell’s hands. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Caldwell tells the story of her friendship and loss with elegance, compassion, empathy and humor. Plus, it’s a dog story! She and her friend, Caroline Knapp, got to know each other, at least in part, because of their love of dogs. Also, they were both sober alcoholics. Caroline had already written her own memoir: Drinking: A Love Story. They were both successful authors. Those were some of the reasons for their bonding.
Caldwell writes of her own alcoholism, “I used to think this was an awful story—shameful and dramatic and sad. I don’t think so anymore. Now I just think it’s human, which is why I decided to tell it.”
The reasons that readers will bond are different. I am not sure I have ever read a book about best friends. Movies and books are romance-dominated. Or, they are historically intriguing. This volume promises none of that. Caldwell writes carefully and lovingly about her best friend, who died.
“For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was in the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.”
“I was learning firsthand that nurturance and strength were each the lesser without the other.”
“Writing about a friendship that flourished within the realm of connection and routine has all the components of trying to capture air.”
“It took me years to grasp that grit and discomfort in any relationship are an indicator of closeness, not its opposite.”
“The best and hardest thing to do was keep my mouth shut and listen.”
“Caroline’s death was a vacancy in the heart, a place I neither could nor wished to fill.”
“The map of one’s life is made up of luck and circumstance and determination.”
“Dying doesn’t end the story; it transforms it.”
“I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”
The final sentence of the book: “Then I got back in the car and kept on going.”
I do not limit my reading or my reviews to people who think exactly as I think. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and hoped to learn something from it, and did. I like the integrity of Gail Caldwell who describes herself as “poised on the line between Knowing and Not Knowing, between what seemed to me the arrogance of religious certainty and the despair of a godless world.” In the last few pages of her memoir, Caldwell tells us her bucket list for the remainder of her own life. She wants to “find God.” I find that hopeful. Since she has moved away from “the despair of a godless world,” maybe it would do me and my religious kin some good to move a bit from “the arrogance of religious certainty.”
Maybe we could meet halfway and learn something from one another, even about death.