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

Review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell post image

Title: Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship
Author: Gail Galdwell
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2010
Acquired: Bought!

One Sentence Summary: “It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and we shared that, too.”

One Sentence Review: Caldwell’s memoir of her friendship with author Caroline Knapp is a lovely story about the power of friendship, but doesn’t tread much new ground in the memoir genre.

Why I Read It: This book was shortlisted for the Indie Lit Awards in nonfiction, and I was a judge for that panel. Opinions expressed in this review are my own, and don’t reflect the thoughts of the panel or reflect our ratings of the book.

Long Review: Although the subtitle of Let’s Take the Long Way Home is “a memoir of friendship,” this book is really a love story from one friend to another, from one companion to the companion who has been suddenly taken away. From the moment the book begins you know that Gail Caldwell’s long-time friend, author Caroline Knapp, won’t be there by the end, yet there’s a lot of happiness to be found in learning about their friendship.

Caldwell and Knapp met over their dogs, running into each other at a local dog park after a friend suggested they may get along. Over the next several years, the two private, independent writers forged a bond that was pretty remarkable. Quite suddenly, Knapp was diagnosed with an advanced form of lung cancer, and succumbed to the disease even more quickly than one thinks is possible.

The best thing about this book is Caldwell’s writing. Her descriptions of people and places and feelings are quite poetic:

All of this seems as though it were yesterday, or forever ago, in that crevasse between space and time that stays fixed in the imagination. I remember it all because I remember it all. In crisis with someone you love, the dialogue is as burnished as a scar on a tree. It shocks me now what I remember, though I suppose it shouldn’t, because I have Caroline’s voice fixed in my hear. That voice: the inflection, the range, the perfectly timed humor. This I would not lose.

That may not even be the best example. I was so absorbed reading the book, I didn’t take the time to mark down any of the passage I loved most.

When I finished this book, I remember being really impressed with it, of thinking how great it was. But as I reflect back and try to write this review, I’m having a hard time pinning down the reasons. I think my initial reaction was just a feeling, a response to the great writing about friendship and my emotional connection to both Caldwell and Knapp. As a memoir, it doesn’t do a lot more than that–it’s a story of friendship, told simply and elegantly, but it falls just a little bit short of being great.

One reason for this is articulated by Jen (Devourer of Books) in her review:

“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.

Jen goes on to say that much of the emotion of the book falls in the last 50 pages or so, which I think is true. The writing is beautiful throughout, but the early parts of the book have a more analytic feeling to them, which feels a little bit distanced.

Gail Caldwell really knows how to write, and her lovely prose is a big part of why this book is enjoyable. But overall, I’m not sure the memoir really does anything innovative or different with the “genre” of the grief memoir. For many readers, I am sure that is enough, but upon reflection I wish there had been just a little bit more.

Other Reviews: Caribousmom | Devourer of Books | The 3R’s Blog |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steph February 16, 2011, 9:24 am

    Great review, Kim. I had only read raves of this one prior to your review, so it’s nice to get a bit of a more critical take on the book (not that you were overly negative!). I am not sure how I feel about memoirs… I started reading The Glass Castle a while back at the gym but it seemed like a random assortment of “look at how wacky and weird my parents were!” moments rather than anything truly coherent. True, I didn’t get very far, so it might have improved but I was less than impressed.

    • Kim February 17, 2011, 7:38 pm

      Steph: I have mixed reactions to memoirs. I tend to like the more if there’s some research with them so they’re more than just a person’s story. Or, if the writing is really amazing. Also, coherence — I like connection, like you said. This one calls in the good writing category.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) February 16, 2011, 6:45 pm

    I love memoirs, especially those that move me, so I have a feeling I’d enjoy this one.

    • Kim February 17, 2011, 7:38 pm

      bermudaonion: I bet you would really enjoy this one!

  • Wendy February 19, 2011, 11:09 pm

    I really loved this one (thanks for the link to my review!) and it sounds like you really appreciated the writing but wasn’t blown away by the story. I don’t approach memoirs the same way I approach fiction (I think I am far more critical of fiction!!), so I think my expectations are not always as high…but, that said, I do think Caldwell wrote a great book here 🙂

    • Kim February 21, 2011, 3:31 pm

      Wendy: I think that was exactly it — the writing was beautiful, but after I thought about the story I felt like there would have been more of it. I try to approach memoirs with that expectation, but I’ve read some really stellar, well-researched ones lately that made this one feel a little light in comparison.