Let's Take the Long Way Home
by Gail Caldwell

Random House, 2010. ISBN 978-1-400-06738-1.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 09/15/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir

Gail Caldwell celebrates her extraordinary friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp in Let's Take the Long Way Home. It is a touching, honest, and often humorous look at their relationship—how they met, why they bonded, and what kept them together. Her memories are clear and deep, and she shares them all, not shying away from the unpleasant nor overwhelming with the too saccharine.

Both women were recovering alcoholics; both were writers; both loved their dogs beyond normal reason. It was this latter commonality that brought them together in the first place. They talked about their dogs as other women might their children. They were always together, dogs and masters, whether in training, walking, or vacationing. Both women were competitive. Caldwell excelled in swimming and Knapp in rowing. Each taught the other her sport while still maintaining an edge. Their personalities complemented one another, as is the case of many lasting friendships. Caldwell was the risk-taker, the bold one, while Knapp was the more conservative good girl. They simply loved sharing life and Knapp would often say at the end of a day, "Let's take the long way home..."

While neither hid her addiction from the other, it was not a regular topic of conversation; it was a silent partner in their relationship always lending an immediate depth that might have otherwise taken years to develop. Of it Caldwell says, "Deeper than most of the most obvious parallels between us was the drinking history we had in common—that empty room in the heart that is the essence of addiction." It did not rule their relationship, but rather lent it a special sensitivity, a knowing of the other.

Caldwell says,"...the real need was soldered by the sadder, harder moments—discord or helplessness or fear—that we dared to expose to each other. It took me years to grasp that this grit and discomfort in any relationship are the indicator of closeness, not its opposite."

As they shared every aspect of their lives, expecting to go on into old age as best friends, there came an event which blind-sided them both. Knapp was diagnosed with a virulent fast-moving lung cancer. "Before one enters this spectrum of sorrow, which changes even the color of trees, there is a blind and daringly wrong assumption that probably allows us to blunder through the days. There is a way one thinks that the show will never end—or that loss, when it comes, will be toward the end of the road, not in its middle."

From that time forward, life as they knew it spiraled away from them. Here was the one experience they couldn't truly share, but they could and would go through it together. As quickly as this phase of their life began, it was over—Knapp's death coming more quickly than anyone could have anticipated. Now there was just left to Caldwell to go on with life with a hole rent through it. Nothing would or could ever be the same. Life would now be processed through a different lens. "What they never tell you about grief is that missing someone is the simple part."

This is as honest a narrative of friendship, loyalty, loss, and grief as I have ever read. Caldwell's words are powerful and genuine, and will gladden your heart with the good times, and wrench your soul with their stark pain. Caldwell is that kind of writer, and readers will be the richer for reading this book.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Gail Caldwell is the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner for Criticism. She is the former chief book critic for the Boston Globe where she worked for over twenty years. She has also published a memoir of growing up in the Amarillo, Texas area: A Strong West Wind. She holds two degrees in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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