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Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
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A Memoir of Friendship

A-Lets Take the Long Way HomeA former Boston Globe book critic and the recipient of a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, Gail Caldwell describes the extraordinary friendship she shared with fellow writer Caroline Knapp in her second memoir (after A Strong West Wind, 4 of 5 Stars Selection May/June 2006).

The Topic: "It's an old, old story," reveals Caldwell. "I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too." Caldwell was an established writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she met Caroline Knapp, a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, in 1996. Although wary of one another at first, an unlikely friendship flowered between these two middle-aged women as they discovered the many things they shared, including a love of dogs, a constant battle with shyness, and a history of alcoholism. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 42 and died shortly thereafter; Caldwell was devastated. "It's taken years for me to understand that dying doesn't end the story," she writes. It "transforms it."
Random House. 208 pages. $23. ISBN: 9781400067381

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Although the book begins with Knapp's death, Caldwell chronologically and gracefully unfurls the story of their relationship. ... At its core, The Long Way Home is a book of such crystalline truth that it makes the heart ache." Judy Bolton-Fasman

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Once she reaches the pages about Knapp's death, Caldwell summons up an incisive emotional clarity about a subject from which many Americans instinctively shy away. ... ‘Everything about death is a cliché until you're in it,' Caldwell writes. That may be true, but very little about this gift of a book would qualify." Yvonne Zipp

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"This may be a book about death and loss, but Caldwell's greatest achievement is to rise above all that to describe both the very best that women can be together and the precious things they can, if they wish, give back to one another: power, humor, love and self-respect." Julie Myerson

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Caldwell has not lost her journalistic bite or brilliance in seeing things as they are." Jeanne Nicholson

Richmond Times-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"Grief, like happiness, is one of the most challenging subjects to write about: somehow a way has to be found between maudlin recollections and brusque acceptance. Happily, Caldwell finds a path, true and straight, to describe, in what is as much an elegy as a remembrance of shared joys, how Caroline Knapp, a fellow Boston writer, came to be her best friend." Judith Chettle

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"You can shelve Let's Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell's beautifully written book about the best friend she lost to cancer in 2002, next to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's searing memoir about losing her husband to heart failure. But that's assuming it makes it to your shelf: This is a book you'll want to share with your own ‘necessary pillars of life,' as Caldwell refers to her nearest and dearest." Heller McAlpin

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"No grief duplicates any other, but Caldwell draws near to a state that lies by its nature beyond language. No friendship duplicates any other, either, and now here is the assessment that I can no longer avoid: The bond this book wants to celebrate is too seldom alive in these pages, and the Caroline Knapp at its center, who so entranced Caldwell, is similarly elusive." John Repp

Critical Summary

Described as a "love letter of a memoir" (Christian Science Monitor), a "book-length elegy" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), and "a gorgeous and extended prayer of mourning" (Boston Globe), Caldwell's uplifting and devastating story drew multiple comparisons to grief's current gold standard--Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2006). However, Caldwell doesn't dwell on her pain in agonizing detail. Instead, she luminously evokes the joys of friendship, deftly sidestepping any hint of cliché or melodrama. Although the Cleveland Plain Dealer reluctantly declared that Knapp never truly comes to life, most critics agreed with the Washington Post: "Her memoir, a tribute to the enduring power of friendship, is a lovely gift to readers."

Cited by the Critics

Truth & Beauty A Friendship | Ann Patchett (2004): In a tender celebration of the ties that bind, novelist Ann Patchett describes her intimate and complex friendship with poet Lucy Grealy, whose struggle with cancer and facial disfigurement inspired her memoir, Autobiography of a Face (1994). ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2004)