This memoir by Gail Caldwell is a roller coaster of a ride. Absorbed in her story and her writing style and moved by the love between Gail and her best friend, Caroline Knapp (the author of Drinking: A Love Story), I devoured it in less than twenty-four hours.
It begins with a beautiful, summative line:
It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.
Yes, it’s a sad book. For comparison, I’ll say that it hit me much harder than The Fault in Our Stars did; perhaps because, as I was reading, I kept thinking of my dearest friends. I loved Gail and Caroline. They remind me of myself: writers, introverts, dog lovers. I underlined many passages and phrases that seemed to perfectly describe me: “dreamy…and selectively fanatical,” “well intentioned but weak on follow-through,” a “gregarious hermit.” Like Gail, I want “the warmth of spontaneous connection and the freedom to be left alone.”
The book begins with Caroline on the lakeshore, teaching the author how to row in exchange for swimming lessons. Gail and Caroline log miles on the water like a measure of their friendship: miles logged during lessons, in the boat together, and even after Caroline’s death. They share a love of the water and of dogs; they get to know everything about one another while taking long, rambling walks with their large dogs in the snowy New England woods. As best friendships go, they know that this friendship is special right from the beginning, and they say as much to one another:
It was as though Caroline and I had crossed into a territory where everything mattered and that we were in it together. ‘Oh, no,’ I said, half laughing but with tears in my eyes. ‘What is it?’ she asked, concerned, and I said, “I need you.’
When Caroline succumbs quickly to an aggressive form of lung cancer, Gail’s life is thrown upside down. She and her beloved Samoyed, Clementine, are left to navigate grief and the woods alone.
Although the subtitle is A Memoir of Friendship, this book is about more than finding that one person who just gets you. It’s about learning how to live after the loss of an irreplaceable friend. It’s about the love between humans and their dogs. It’s about triumphing over the struggles of life, whether they be anorexia, alcoholism, or even cancer.
Overall, this book is expertly crafted. Its main threads—Caroline, dogs, rowing—are seamlessly woven. There was only one part of the book that stuck out like a sore thumb to me, and that is the author’s lengthy description of her own struggles with alcoholism. While it is very interesting, insightful and well written, and while alcoholism is one of the things through which Gail and Caroline connect, it just seems as though it departs too sharply from the main story.
All in all, though, Taking the Long Way Home is an excellent memoir. If you’ve been lucky enough to have a best friend (or friends) in your life, it will surely speak to you.