Mining the depths of grief, memory

By Judy Bolton-Fasman
Globe Correpondent / February 17, 2010

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As Gail Caldwell writes at the outset of her stunning new memoir: “It’s an old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that.’’

Anyone who has lived through the death of a soulmate may be tempted to punctuate Caldwell’s unadorned sentence with a mournful “amen.’’ In “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,’’ Caldwell, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and former book critic for The Globe, has written a gorgeous and extended prayer of mourning for her friend and fellow writer Caroline Knapp.

Knapp, who was also a fine memoirist, chronicled her struggle with alcoholism in “Drinking: A Love Story.’’ In a second memoir Knapp wrote about the immutable lessons she learned from her dog Lucille in “Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs.’’ She died in June 2002 from lung cancer at the age of 42.

Reeling from her friend’s death, Caldwell matter-of-factly yet profoundly notes, “Death is a cliche until you’re in it.’’ Yet there is nothing cliched or maudlin about the unexpectedly intense and moving friendship these two women forged in middle age. Although the book begins with Knapp’s death, Caldwell chronologically and gracefully unfurls the story of their relationship.

For Caldwell, Knapp embodied the ideal imaginary friend, but “funnier and better than you conceived.’’ These women also bonded over a passion for their dogs. Clementine, a gorgeous Samoyed the color of fresh snow, and Lucille, a small German shepherd mix, belonged respectively to Caldwell and Knapp.

Friendship between the women and their beloved canines took root during their long walks around Fresh Pond. Their relationship blossomed as they shared details of their hard-won battles against the bottle. They also had an enthusiasm bordering on zeal for rowing on the Charles River. Similarly, they thrived in the singular, intense life of a writer. They kept sight of each other even as they often existed on “parallel tracks’’ in time and space.

This is a book about a death muted by the beauty of human connection. At its core, “The Long Way Home’’ is a book of such crystalline truth that it makes the heart ache. “What they never tell you about grief,’’ Caldwell writes, “is that missing someone is the simple part.’’

In a life fine-tuned by the grief and memory of a beloved friend’s death, small details take on talismanic powers. Caldwell can’t bear to throw out her set of keys to Knapp’s house. These are keys “to locks and doors that no longer exist, and I keep them in my glove compartment, where they have been moved from one car to another in the past couple of years.’’

The language and gestures of intimacy that existed between Caldwell and Knapp were so highly idiosyncratic they resisted translation. “Our trust allowed for a shorthand that let us get to the point quickly.’’ Caldwell also describes necessarily bumping up against a counterintuitive notion of intimacy. After Knapp’s death she appreciated that the “grit and discomfort’’ of their relationship also indicated their closeness.

Maybe the story of Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp’s friendship is an old story. But it is also a holy story. A familiar yet emotionally complex story that can bring a reader to tears.

Judy Bolton-Fasman is a columnist for The Jewish Advocate.

LET’S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME: A Memoir of Friendship By Gail Caldwell

Random House, 186 pp., $24.95