Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Gail Caldwell's Let’s Take the Long Way Home

“It’s an old, old story. I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that too.'”

With that opening, I was caught. Let’s Take the Long Way Home squeezed and released my heart in unpredictable intervals, easing up the pressure just a bit before tightening again. Caldwell crafts her story with a curator’s touch and an acrobat’s grace, spinning so many different plates in the air and coming back to them just as they’re about to fall. With wrenching details and sweet callbacks, she sets the halls of the past echoing with her barrage of memories.

“Men don’t really understand women’s friendships, do they?”
“Oh G-d, no. And we must never tell them.”

The friendship depicted in Let’s Take the Long Way Home is borderline romantic comedy fodder. Two women meet at a party, but don’t hit it off. They are reintroduced by their mutual dog trainer who thinks they’re perfect for each other. The pair circle each other warily, discover remarkable similarities, and soon are inseparable. Caldwell writes of Caroline: “Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived.”

Caroline and Caldwell’s unshakeable connection is the beating heart of the book. They first bond over their dogs, but they quickly invade every possible part of each other’s lives, becoming pleasantly enmeshed. Caldwell pins down the multitude of ways friends bleed into each other at the edges, and one of my favorite anecdotes deals with shorthand born from shared experiences. My housemates and I have our own version of “I’m afraid Lilian is stealing the dog again,” their way of saying “Your worries are ridiculous and out-of-control but I still love you.” (We call it “pulling a U-Haul.”)

Of course, there’s unconditional support between the friends—cheerleading writing successes and taking even the silliest of neuroses seriously—but equally interesting to me was the friendly rivalry played out through athletics. These two women are intensely physical, regularly taking hikes together with their dogs, so it makes sense that they want to try their hand at each other’s sports. (Both gravitate toward water, Caroline a lifelong rower and Caldwell a devoted swimmer.) Their similar drives to be good at what their friend loves was riveting. It is a testament to Caldwell’s writing that I was so invested in her attempts at sculling. Not only did I understand her desire deeply, I even wanted to try it myself. This want bloomed from nothing because of her words. (I felt the same way about Elizabeth Gilbert and meditation.)

Since Caldwell brought Caroline to life through her pages, Caroline’s absence floored me. Caldwell's grief and her processing of it was so complete. The loss of any person severs a connection, setting the fears that had a home adrift. The one who survives must deal with the absence of a presence but also everything around it—the shared lexicon, memories, routines. Perhaps the most telling detail: Caldwell’s dog Clementine still looked around for Caroline every time she heard the same model of Caroline’s car being unlocked.

An additional bonus of this memoir is its accessible setting. Since Caldwell and Caroline lived literally/literarily right in my neighborhood of Cambridge, I swelled with local pride every time I recognized names: Fresh Pond, the Middlesex Fells, the reservoir, winding back through Somerville, the boathouses lining the river. (I can actually go down to the Charles and have a paddle whenever I want!) These familiar places brought the reality of the story even closer to home.

Honestly, this book is an automatic Top 10 of the Year. The prose, the situation, the people involved…Flawless. Beauty etched from pain. Even Caldwell by herself is fascinating. It is a memoir, after all. Her battle with alcoholism, her bond with her dog, and, above all, her preservation of Caroline’s memory drew me in. I appreciated this glimpse into the head of a woman who chose to eschew romantic relationships in favor of a family of friends. I identified with her and smarted with her when an ex-boyfriend said “You know, sometimes the light of you is just a little too bright.” He could have been right, though it wouldn’t be so bad if he were. Caldwell found what she needed elsewhere.

As someone whose has experienced the vast spectrum of female friendship, its highest highs and lowest lows, I feel comfortable saying that my female friends are vital to my survival. They sustain me and enrich my life to an impossible degree. I believe just as strongly that Gail and Caroline were soulmates, a designation I consider no less powerful for being platonic and not romantic. I can’t know if I’ll have a Caroline in my life (time will tell), but I do know I will be returning to this book and this friendship many, many times.

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