”What if dying weren’t a bad thing?” Gail Caldwell asks.
Although death and loss are central to Gail Caldwell’s memoir of her friendship with Caroline Knapp, let’s take the long way home is less about that friendship and more about coping with life and loss and the unexpected gifts of living.
Caldwell mentions Caroline Knapp as a force of change in her ”gregarious hermit’s” life, someone with whom she had much in common and shared the love of writing and the responsibility of having a dog dependent upon her for every aspect of a good life. Liking probing and checking a healing wound, in this case Caroline’s death in 2002, Caldwell tests the edges of her pain and loss in the earlier chapters and dives into some of her own history before Caroline and Clementine, her Samoyed pup, came into her life.
There are similarities between Drinking: A Love Story by Knapp with the excavation of Caldwell’s own growing love affair with alcohol, and some time is spent on the whys, wherefores, and history of recognizing she needed help and reaching out for it. Caldwell skims over her academic history and life before and after the move to New York City where she studied literature and writing and goes back to probing and testing the past before diving directly into the midst of Caroline Knapp’s diagnosis of stage 4 cancer and death at 42.
It is not until the final chapters that Caldwell unleashes her pain and questions, finally done touching the edges of sadness and loss, backing away, moving on to other subjects until the need to probe the raw puckered edges of devastating loss comes again. In the last third of let’s take the long way home Caldwell plunges into the center, pressing hard and unearthing pain and grief until she finally accepts the loss and begins to heal and let go.
In many ways, Caldwell’s memoir is a celebration of life and friendship and the serendipity of finding a soul mate that fills the voids and valleys and loves you even more.
At the end, Clementine is dead and Caldwell considers finding another Samoyed pup. She has come to grips with the loss of a great friend and with what Caroline meant—and still means—to her. Let’s take the long way home is as much about living and accepting the richness and grief of life as it is about friendship, addiction and hope. As Gail Caldwell observes, “Like a starfish, the heart endures it amputation.”