Opening Lines (Chapter 1): “I can still see her standing on the shore, a towel around her neck and a post-workout cigarette in her hand—half Gidget and half splendid splinter, her rower’s arms in defiant contrast to the awful pink bathing suit she’d found somewhere. It was the summer of 1997, and Caroline and I had decided to swap sports: I would give her swimming lessons and she would teach me how to row.”
Book description: They met over their dogs. Both writers, Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp, author of Drinking: A Love Story, became best friends, talking about everything from their shared history of a struggle with alcohol, to their relationships with men and colleagues, to their love of books. They walked the woods of New England and rowed on the Charles River, and the miles they logged on land and water became a measure of the interior ground they covered. From disparate backgrounds but with striking emotional similarities, these two private, fiercely self-reliant women created an attachment more profound than either of them could ever have foreseen.
The friendship helped them define the ordinary moments of life as the ones worth cherishing. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion and grief in this moving memoir about treasuring and losing a best friend.
Comments: Almost ten years ago, I read Caroline Knapp’s memoir of dog ownership Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, which explored, among other things, her relationship with her shepherd mix Lucille. I wasn’t too far from being a single (divorced) woman with a dog myself, so I was intrigued by the story.
In many respects, though, Caroline and Lucille belonged to a “pack of four,” along with Caroline’s closest friend, Gail Caldwell (“Grace” in the book) and Gail’s Samoyed, Clementine. A dog trainer played matchmaker of sorts for the two women, but they soon found many things that connected them in addition to their dogs, who accompanied them on their long walks and talks. But their time together came to an unexpected end after just a few years, when Caroline was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. In this relatively brief and moving memoir, Gail Caldwell – a columnist, book critic for the Boston Globe, and author of a prior memoir – takes readers on a rambling “long way home” as she recounts episodes and experiences from her friendship with Caroline.
Speaking both frankly and intimately, Caldwell discusses some of the common elements of their personal histories – in addition to having their devotion to dogs and their writing careers in common, both women were recovering alcoholics, but forged their friendship after they’d both stopped drinking – and how their relationship was shaped by their shared experiences. She never outright tells the reader why and how she and Caroline became so close, but illustrates their bond through the stories she has chosen to tell.
Because the reader already knows that Caroline is dead when the book begins – and the book’s ending chapters center on the events surrounding that – it’s understandable that one might shy away from reading something so “sad.” However, this is a memoir, not a memorial – and while Caldwell certainly does not skirt around or minimize the sadness and grief, this is a story of shared life. The attachment between Gail and Caroline is genuine and healthy, and I didn’t get the feeling that Caldwell was idealizing it.
It’s all too common to place friendships, no matter how close they are, on a rung below family and romantic relationships; one of the things I loved about this book is that it’s the story of two people who never did that. I also appreciated the fact that both of these women were well into adulthood when they met and became friends. There are many stories about friends who’ve been together since preschool days – no matter how well they like each other, it seems like those friendships eventually become at least partly about the longevity of their own existence. It seems much rarer to form bonds like that when we’re older – and reading about two people who did gives me some hope. Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp were lucky to have the kind of friendship they did, and it’s lucky for readers that Gail Caldwell chose to let them share in it.
This book counts for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge.