Gail Caldwell remembers Caroline Knapp
Before Caroline Knapp died of lung cancer — in 2002, at age 42 — she'd gone bestseller with the most private of torments: her alcoholism (in Drinking: A Love Story) and her anorexia (Appetites: Why Women Want). She'd also written about the special connection she had with her dog (Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs). And, for the Phoenix's popular "Out There" column, she'd kept readers guessing how much Caroline was in "Alice K. (not her real initial)," her neurotic-insomniac alter ego.
Prominent and transparent as she was on the page, Caroline was opaque in the office. We worked at the Phoenix for years and never exchanged a word — which speaks as much to my nature as to hers. Still, she was elusive. Even a social-butterfly co-worker described her as "one of those people whose face you never actually see," and it made perfect sense: someone who could duck out of view in plain sight. Lack of eye contact was only part of it — her quiet skittishness seemed to go deeper than that.One person who got a protracted, full-on look at Caroline was Gail Caldwell, who had also written for the Phoenix before becoming a book critic at the Globe (where she won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for criticism). As Caldwell describes their friendship in Let's Take the Long Way Home, at first, each woman read the other as poised and put-together. Later, they realized they shared a persistently independent spirit, a certain seriousness and self-doubt, a knack for twisted romantic entanglements, and alcoholism. And a love of dogs. Each had recently become a dog owner, and this was what ignited their friendship — many long walks with Gail's Clementine and Caroline's Lucille through the Middlesex Fells Reservation. Perhaps their strongest bond had to do with their common need to be halfway left alone. They had learned, Caldwell writes, "that we could exist on parallel tracks in silent space."
Let's Take the Long Way Home is like Caldwell's previous memoir, A Strong West Wind, in its gorgeous language and lack of spectacle. No big secrets are revealed; the Caroline Knapp eulogized here is as smart, intense, and driven as her own writings made clear. Even within the cocoon of her friendship with Gail, Caroline comes across as tightly wound and worry prone. One scene, though, is surprising and funny: Caroline acting like a lunatic in front of dozens of people as a diversion to save Gail from embarrassment. Caroline is willing to lose her well-guarded dignity for her friend. It's sweet to see.
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