Book review: ‘Let’s Take the Long Way Home’ by Gail Caldwell

Decades past high school, Gail Caldwell had the luck to find a true best friend — a woman whose strengths and weaknesses perfectly complemented her own. Then she endured the tragedy of losing her, an ending that she shares at the beginning of her affecting new grief memoir, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship.”

Caldwell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for her work as chief book critic for the Boston Globe, beckons us into her story with lines that evoke Hemingway: “I had a friend,” she writes, “and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.”

“Let’s Take the Long Way Home”: A caption under a photo accompanying a book review of Gail Caldwell’s “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” in Wednesday’s Calendar section identified its subject as Caldwell. The photo shows Caroline Knapp, about whom Caldwell wrote in her book. —

Caldwell’s friend, Caroline Knapp, was a columnist for the Boston Phoenix and the bestselling author of several books. A graceful athlete who rowed Boston’s Charles River with obsessive fervor. A fellow dog lover. And, like Caldwell, who candidly details her own addiction struggles in this memoir, a recovering alcoholic. Knapp had also battled anorexia, while Caldwell was a polio survivor.

Both women had a history of stormy romantic relationships. In the past, they had even tangled with, and fled, the same man. When they met, they were both single, though Knapp had a longtime boyfriend who remained loyal and would eventually return.

According to Caldwell, the friends spent much of their time gamboling with their respective canines, taking long conversation-filled walks and drives (hence the memoir’s title) and training each other in their respective sports. (Caldwell’s forte was swimming.)

So close were they, Caldwell says, that they were frequently mistaken for sisters, lovers or even each other. One thinks of the mystical bonds between identical twins. Knapp actually had a twin sister, which Caldwell suggests may have fostered her capacity for intimacy.

In background and temperament, the two were easy to tell apart. Knapp, the more patrician, was a Cambridge, Mass., native, the orphaned daughter of a psychiatrist and an artist who had both been felled by cancer. She was tough, unassuming and reliable in a crisis — the more accepting and diplomatic of the two. Caldwell, descended from farm families who settled the Texas Panhandle, was eight years older, “dreamy, stubborn, and selectively fanatical.”

But their mutual engagement was intense and seemingly charmed. “For years,” Caldwell writes, “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.” They urged each other on but also shielded each other from tendencies toward excess, from too-long walks or rowing in bad weather. “Each gave the other permission to lower the bar,” says Caldwell.

Sports loom large in this book. At times, just reading about all that physical activity, which Caldwell recalls through a nostalgic haze, can seem exhausting. And the women’s obsession with dogs, which encompassed classifying people they knew in terms of canine breeds, may not resonate as deeply for those without similar predilections.

What holds the reader in the end is the elegance and precision of Caldwell’s prose, her stiletto-like way with words. And, of course, that the emotions she taps — the joy of communion with a soul mate, the devastation of unexpected loss — are universal. “Grief is what tells you who you are alone,” Caldwell says, beautifully, and that solitude is something all the bereaved — in other words, all of us — will have to reckon with some day.

For Caldwell and Knapp, the end came much too quickly. After months of coughing, Knapp, a longtime heavy smoker in her early 40s, was diagnosed with inoperable, Stage 4 lung cancer. As her friends circled “like heartbroken hens,” Caroline, Caldwell says, found herself “someplace past fear where I had never been.” It is difficult to read the remainder of this memoir without tears.

But perhaps the best way to understand the magnitude of Caldwell’s loss — and, it turns out, ours as well — is to pick up Knapp’s classic 1996 memoir, “Drinking: A Love Story.” I found mine on my bookshelf. It offered a perfectly honed account of Knapp’s harrowing descent into alcoholism and its aftermath and revealed a woman I surely would have wanted to know.

One evening, I accidentally left the book behind on a chair at an upscale Philadelphia swim club famous for its copious open bar and hard-drinking regulars. To my considerable annoyance, it disappeared, and its fate remains unknown. But I am consoled — and I hope Caldwell is too — by the notion that Knapp’s words, her legacy, may yet help change someone’s life.

Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.