Down and Out in Denver

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. II

Posted in books by Blake on August 24, 2010

Readers may remember that I inaugurated a new feature here at DOD last month: Blake’s Book Nook, in which I pretend that I run a book shop and recommend a (usually) recently published book to you.  Today we have our second installment: Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell. Caldwell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2001, is a book critic for the Boston Globe (formerly its chief critic) and the author of another memoir, A Strong West Wind.  This is the story of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp, and of Knapp’s death from lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 42. Knapp was also a writer and the author of a number of collections of essays as well as a memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, about her struggle with alcoholism.  That book, which is fantastic, is one of the reasons I read this one, that and the excellent review in the most recent Sunday Times Book Review.

I like stories about friendship, particularly ones that acknowledge the importance that it has in our lives.  Like Ann Patchett’s very moving Truth and Beauty — also the story of two writers, one of whom dies suddenly and tragically — this is the chronicle of a long friendship between two women, but there is much less drama to the actual friendship between Knapp and Caldwell than existed between Patchett and the poet Lucy Grealy.  The friendship between Knapp and Caldwell is arguably more central to both of their lives.  They meet when Knapp is in her late 30s and Caldwell is 9 years her senior.  Both have recently adopted dogs and are well nigh obsessed with training them properly (Knapp was also the author of Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, where Caldwell and her dog, Clementine, make a pseudonymous appearance).  Both are also recovering alcoholics.  Neither is married or involved with a man, though Knapp eventually reconciles with her on-again-off-again boyfriend and marries him the month before her death. Their friendship quickly escalates to the status of a primary relationship for both of them.  In a society where many people don’t marry, or wait many years before doing so, and many more leave marriages, Caldwell and Knapp shared their lives together as friends.  They talked, they competed, they swam and rowed (both exercise fanatics), they vacationed, they trained and walked their dogs together.  When Caldwell bought her first home, Knapp carried her over the threshold, laughing the whole time. Their friendship was deep and meaningful and important.

Of course no book is great just because it’s about something interesting and important.  And this is true of Caldwell’s.  It’s great because she writes beautifully, doing her utmost to describe what friendship means, how grief feels, and how loss manifests itself in our lives.  Caldwell begins:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died, and so we shared that, too.

Her writing is simple without being stark.  At times it is funny.  And often it is heartbreaking.  (I should say also that on the subject of grief, I far preferred this to Didion’s much fêted Year of Magical Thinking, which I found pretentious and without much new to say.) What works is how observant she is and how she is able to translate that to the page, to make us see what happened between her and Knapp, and why it mattered, why friendship matters. Caldwell recalls the moment when Knapp, a long-time smoker, is first diagnosed with lung cancer:

I remember two things from the rest of that day with glaring clarity.  One was Caroline crying as I wrapped my arms around her, after they had brought her back up to her room, when the first thing she said to me was “Are you mad at me?”  It was the voice of early terror, a primal response to bad news, and to this day I don’t know whether she meant because we had fought about the smoking or because she knew she was going to leave me.

And after her death:

For years, through the trials of writing or dog training or life’s ordinary bruises, Caroline and I had been the soothing, modulated voice in each other’s heads.  Now my thoughts were clanging around unnoticed and unheard, lonely music with too much bass.  For months, I kept wanting to call her, half assuming I could, to tell her what her dying had meant, what her death had done to my life.

These two excerpts simply do not do the book justice.  Suffice it to say that I read it all in one sitting, crying through the final third.

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4 Responses

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  1. ej said, on August 26, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    I just finished ordering it!

    Why is it that these types of relationships only seem to exist when there are no mans in the picture?

    • Blake said, on August 27, 2010 at 7:30 am

      So true, ej. I do wonder if they end up being so serious and profound by default, which is a shame, but also a comment on the insane pressure all of us feel to couple up. She talks about that in the book.

  2. mdroche said, on August 26, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Do you think I could take up residence in the Book Nook Blake?

    • Blake said, on August 27, 2010 at 7:31 am

      I would love it if you would move into the Book Nook post haste!


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