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Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir…
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Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (2010)

by Gail Caldwell

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Originally posted at http://www.matildaallgrownup.wordpress.com

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 as if they’re a measure of their friendship: miles logged during lessons, in the boat together, and 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 seemed 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. ( )
1 vote blackrabbit89 | Jun 24, 2014 |
"It's an old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too."

These opening lines from Gail Caldwell's memoir LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME for some reason brought to mind the opening of Erich Segal's bestselling novel, LOVE STORY:

“What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. The Beatles. And me.”

I know, I know. Caldwell's book is about a real life friendship between two women, and Segal's is a near smarmy sentimental piece of pop fiction, but you don't get to choose what pops into your head when you're reading.

Caldwell's book came out in 2010, and I remember reading about it at the time and wanting to read it, but didn't get around to it until now. I was interested in the book because I had read her friend Caroline Knapp's PACK OF TWO, a very moving memoir of how a dog helped her to cope with loneliness and a long recovery from anorexia and alcoholism. And I liked that one enough to read another Knapp book, a posthumous collection of her newspaper columns and essays called THE MERRY RECLUSE.

Caldwell is a good writer, but reading about loss and grief is never easy. However, the first half of LONG WAY HOME, with its loving and sometimes humorous descriptions of how the two met and how their friendship deepened, makes it a bit easier. New Englander Knapp and Texas-born Caldwell were both basically loners, devoted to their dogs and their writing, and to a small circle of close friends. Knapp had struggled with anorexia, Caldwell had polio as a child, and both were recovering alcoholics. Caldwell was a swimmer, Knapp a rower. So they had much in common, not to mention their beloved dogs, Lucille and Clementine - an added bonus for readers who are dog lovers.

This is a deeply felt story of how women bond. I was struck by this passage, feeling very much the outsider -

"'Men don't really understand women's friendships, do they?' I once asked my friend Louise, a writer who lived in Minnesota. 'Oh God, no,' she said. 'And we must never tell them.'"

And yet this book is perhaps one of the most heartfelt tellings of such a friendship that I have ever read.

It is the second half of the book that is so hard, so painful, the part that describes Knapp's final illness and death from cancer at the age of forty-two. In the last days Caldwell tells of wearing a T-shirt to the hospital with two of the first important commands learned in dog obedience classes printed on the back: SIT! STAY! And, she tells us, in those last days and final hours, "that was what I did. I sat and I stayed."

This is not a book you can blithely say, I really enjoyed it. The subject is too sad, too serious. But you can certainly learn something from it. And if you have ever lost someone you loved, human or canine, you will definitely relate.

Gail Caldwell has written a beautiful tribute to her dear friend, and to the joys and mysteries of a deep and true friendship. And maybe I wasn't so wrong after all in thinking of the Erich Segal book. Because LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME is also a love story in the most elemental sense. Caroline would have been so pleased. Highly recommended. ( )
  TimBazzett | Jun 16, 2014 |
A gorgeous memoir. Rarely do you see friendship taken seriously as a subject worthy of literary exploration. This book is also a great example of how you don't need a dramatic experience to make a good story. Caldwell begins by spilling the beans: "It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too." We don't turn the pages to find out what happened; we turn the pages to experience fully what happened, and to learn what Caldwell makes of it. This memoir is also a beautiful example of the power of the reflective voice to carry a narrative. "Maybe this is the point: to embrace the core sadness of life without toppling headlong into it, or assuming it will define your days. The real trick is to let life, with all its ordinary missteps and regrets, be consistently more mysterious and alluring than its end." ( )
  ElizabethAndrew | May 13, 2013 |
I'm having a hard time framing a coherent review of this book. It's the story of a friendship that was intense and huge and that ended in death. I read, long ago, a memoir written by Knapp, who is the friend eulogized and remembered and celebrated herein. I recall liking that book a lot.

This one, though, was really hard. See, I had a friend with whom I was very close for a very long time, and then I moved across the country and though we always *said* we were going to live together when we were old, sometimes whole weeks would pass where we didn't talk. Then she got sick and in what seemed like a blinding rush, died. I was 3000 miles away and I should have been right there with her. So, yeah, reading this, which includes Caldwell being at Knapp's bedside during her sickness and death, was difficult.

The book is exceedingly well-written, grueling, evocative and ultimately kind of wise. Recommended. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
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Epigraph
The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. - George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life
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for Caroline
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It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.
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Everyone was getting a crash course in irony, the lesson that the grievous and the mundane exist in parallel spheres.
...I thought grief was a simple, wrenching realm of sadness and longing that gradually receded. What that definition left out was the body blow that loss inflicts, as well as the temporary madness, and a range of less straightforward emotions shocking in their intensity. I would move as though I were underwater for weeks, maybe months...
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In this gorgeous, moving memoir, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Caldwell reflects on her own coming-of-age in midlife, as she learns to open herself to the power and healing of sharing her life with a best friend.

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