Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell – Book Review

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Published by Random House

The last thing Gail Caldwell expected to find when training her dog Clementine was a best friend, but that is exactly what she found in Caroline Knapp, and more. Gail and Caroline’s dog trainer suggested then spend some time together because they were so alike. Both women had puppies they’d gotten less than a year ago, they were both writers, both recovering alcoholics, athletic, and incredibly independent. From that fateful meeting, the women formed a lasting bond that would sustain them until Caroline’s death of lung cancer, a short time after being diagnosed.

Released earlier this August, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” is getting a lot of buzz. While I was at BEA, a representative of Random House listed it as one of the publishing house’s top 5 picks for book clubs this coming year. I must say, for about 140 pages, I didn’t really see it, and that is a long time in a book that is less than 190 pages long.

It also took me about that long to realize what my problem was with it. “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” is billed as a memoir of Gail and Caroline’s friendship, but it was almost more of an extended essay about their friendship, without the strong narrative of many of my favorite memoirs. Not that Caldwell didn’t have a strong voice, she does, but her writing milieu is on the critical side. Caroline was the columnist and memoirist in their relationship. Knowing this I’m not surprised that “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” was so much more like an essay, but it did not grab me as quickly as a more narrative-driven version of this story might have.

Of course, I can imagine that in many was, the essay structure was easier to write than the narrative would have been. There is so much love and pain, friendship and grief in this story, that for Gail to have gone deep into the story of her relationship with Caroline might have been deeply painful. Unfortunately, the pain is much of what makes this story so compelling. It was during Caroline’s sickness and after her death, the last 40 or so pages, that “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” really came into its own. Suddenly the pages seemed to be almost turning themselves, and my heart was fully immersed in this story.

Although I’m sure it would have been infinitely more difficult to write, I wish that Caldwell had been able to infuse more of the emotion from the end of “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” into the beginning of the book. However, even though I more appreciated the book for what it was than truly loved it, I think it is a must-read for any woman who has lost a close friend.

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This review was done with a book received at BEA.
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8 comments to Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell – Book Review

  • A 190 page essay would certainly be a bit of a painful read for me. I love a good essay, but essays are meant to be insightful, short works.

  • I just read about this in the paper this past week. The background of the two women and their love for their dogs was so compelling. Their story seemed to have potential. I also prefer a little more emotion, but understand the price the author would have paid.

  • Karen

    My reaction to the book was very different. Carolone Knapp was a part of my college experience – I’d just moved to Boston from the burbs of CT, & her column in the Boston Phoenix made a geeky girl feel a little more wordly and a lot more understood. Her book Drinking: A Love Story came out at a time when it was good to take a hard look at our partying lifestyles. I’ve given it to a friend as recently as two months ago, and it helped her move on from an alcoholic relationship.

    So, as has been suggested, perhaps I brought my own feelings to Caldwell’s memoir – which I loved.

    • I can definitely see how that would make a big difference, since what I wanted was more emotion from the first part of her story. Perhaps that was part of her initial thoughts as well, that many of the readers would be people already invested in her life or Caroline’s. I can see it being a phenomenal hit with those people because, while somewhat removed, it was certainly very personal. As a more universal memoir of friendship, however, I think it lacks a little.

  • I just had to weigh in on this fabulous book. It grabbed my emotions from the first page, although I wasn’t previously acquainted with Gail Caldwell or Caroline Knapp. I felt that it was a universal story that anyone who has ever had a true, dear friend could identify with. The love and devotion these two women friends had for each other rivaled (and probably surpassed)many marriages. I loved reading about their independent, book-filled, alcohol-challenged lives. This would make a beautiful gift for that special friend in your life, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

    • I just felt like she was telling me how great their friendship was all the time, but I didn’t see it first hand until Caroline got sick.

      • I’m wondering whether the lack of emotion you feel at the beginning could be due to the fact that they were both former alcoholics, so used to their independence and each so personally reticent that the beginning of their friendship was cautious, not overwrought with emotion? (When you love a book you find all kinds of excuses for its perceived shortcomings — kind of like sticking up for a good friend.) They were afraid to ask whether the other liked and respected their work, because they didn’t want to admit to that level of vulnerability and need. When they did discuss it, it was a very powerful and raw moment of the book for me. It reminded me of Sally Field’s long-ago acceptance speech: “you like me, you really, really like me.”

        • But it wasn’t so much the lack of emotion between them, but her lack of emotion talking about them (I also didn’t like her long portion about her own alcoholism, I wanted to hear about their friendship, not about her life before Caroline, I thought she could have gotten the same point across in a shorter section. I still think it was probably a way to protect herself a little while writing from the reality of her friend’s death until she no longer could do so and had to write about Caroline’s illness and life after Caroline. That is totally understandable, but not quite as compelling.