Book Talk: NEW LIFE, NO INSTRUCTIONS, by Gail Caldwell

Gail Caldwell (Facebook)
Random House (April 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 1400069548 / 9781400069545)
Nonfiction/memoir, 176 pages
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (April 15, 2014)Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.

Gail Caldwell’s 2010 memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, explored the losses that defined her fifth decade: her parents, her best friend and her beloved Samoyed, Clementine. She came into her 60s determined to move on, including starting over with a new puppy. But living with and training an active young dog forced Caldwell to confront just how difficult “moving on” was becoming for her, in aphysical sense. Caldwell had been compensating for the effects of polio her entire life, and this was getting harder every day. New Life, No Instructions is the story of how she learned she didn’t have to continue to compensate, and of how a common medical procedure enabled her to see her life, literally, from a new perspective.

Caldwell’s medical history led her and her caregivers to an exotic explanation for her painful limp, poor balance, fatigue, and other symptoms; for years, they had been trying to address her issues as manifestations of the relatively rare Post-Polio Syndrome. In 2011, a new doctor identified her problem as something far more ordinary: her right hip had completely deteriorated–perhaps due to post-polio complications, but perhaps for completely unrelated reasons; she needed surgery to replace it, and which would also make both of her legs the same length for the first time in her life.

New Life, No Instructions is an affirming and hopeful reminder that sometimes the stories that we tell ourselves turn out to be wrong, but they can lead us to something very right. Caldwell’s brief (under 200 pages) memoir of a year of unexpected midlife transformation is clear-eyed and plainspoken. She vividly conveys her sense of wonder and possibility at being in such a new place at such an unexpected time, and it’s hard to resist being caught up in that feeling.
I read this memoir in the weeks leading up to my 50th birthday, and while I’m inclined to think it will especially resonate with Caldwell’s midlife contemporaries (and fellow dog people), it’s a worthwhile read for anyone who appreciates good writing…and the idea that change is always possible.

book talk 3rsblog

The Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author of Let’s Take the Long Way Home now gives us a stunning, exquisitely written memoir about a dramatic turning point in her life, which unexpectedly opened up a world of understanding, possibility, and connection. New Life, No Instructions is about the surprising way life can begin again, at any age.

Opening Lines

Cambridge 2011 

“My first tip-off that the world had shifted was that the dogs looked lower to the ground. I dismissed the perception as a visual misread: Because I was on crutches and couldn’t bend down to touch them, of course they seemed further away. Then a friend came to visit, a striking woman whom I’d always considered tall. She was standing across the living room, and I was smiling, happy to have her there, and I thought, Tink is small! And I never realized it before.”

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