Memoir explores friendship, loss and dogs

A close friend recently recommended "Let's Take the Long Way Home," Gail Caldwell's memoir of her friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp. Knapp died in 2002 at age 42.

"I know you don't like books about loss and despair," my friend said, "but this is gorgeous."

Then he handed me his copy and dared me to read the first page and not want to continue. The book opens with, "It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died so we shared that, too." I was hooked.

Caldwell's story of her deep and loving friendship with Knapp is a beautifully written celebration of friendship and a thoughtful look at what happens to us after a great loss. While hers is a moving story, it is not at all maudlin. In fact, the book doesn't build up to Knapp's death or even focus very long on the short time between her diagnosis with lung cancer and her death. It is a book about the kind of best-buddy friendship that we are lucky to find, that we can't imagine losing.

Caldwell writes, "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."

Caldwell is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former critic for the Boston Globe. Knapp was a columnist for the Boston Phoenix and a bestselling author of several books, including "Drinking: A Love Story." Although the two writers traveled in similar literary circles, they didn't become friends until a mutual acquaintance introduced them.

The women quickly bonded as they discovered a mutual love of writing, water sports — rowing for Knapp, swimming for Caldwell — and dogs. "Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived," Caldwell writes.

Even after long hikes together in the New England woods, or an afternoon of rowing the Charles River, the women often would go to their separate homes and call each other on the phone. Caldwell writes, "According to the rule book, men had sports and women had talking. Caroline and I cultivated both."

They had the sort of deep talks that only best friends have about life — their personal realities and their dreams for the future. They discovered connections with one another, such as owning the same articles of clothing, or that they coincidentally had dated and dumped the same man. Knapp's struggle with alcoholism was made public in an earlier memoir; Caldwell shared her own story of alcoholism and sobriety only after her friendship with Knapp deepened.

They also talked about what they loved best of all, dogs. This is a great book for dog lovers, as Caldwell's dog stories are as rich and lovely as her stories of friendship. She details the struggles and joys of training her large Samoyed, Clementine, and shares with self-deprecating humor the women's snobbery regarding dog breeds, training and pet-owner behavior. Her unruly sled dog is nearly as strong a character as Knapp.

In part, Caldwell's commitment to Clementine and Knapp's dog, Lucille, helped her cope with the loss of her friend. In the book, she acknowledges that she is irrevocably changed by Knapp's friendship and her death. Caldwell says that the real hell for people who lose a loved one is knowing that eventually they will get through it.

"Like a starfish, the heart endures its amputation," she writes.

Caldwell reminds readers that friendship is precious. No matter how long friendships last, we're made better by those who love us.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at

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