Although Gail Caldwell first met Caroline Knapp at a party in the early 1990s, that brief exchange merely paved the way for a re-introduction when Caldwell encountered Knapp near a duck pond in Cambridge years later. In the meantime, a prescient dog trainer who knew both women had suggested to Caldwell that she and Knapp spend some time together.
Caldwell's tale of her relationship with Knapp opens with "It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too."
By the time of the duck pond meeting, Caldwell had acquired a Samoyed named Clementine. Her life revolved around her writing and her time with Clementine. At the pond, she remembered Knapp, but suspected that Knapp didn't recognize her --- a notion that turned out to be wrong. Caldwell could tell by Knapp's interaction with her shepherd mix Lucille that they were both passionate about their dogs. She also knew, from reading the revealing memoir Knapp had published, DRINKING: A Love Story, that their shared canine love wasn't their only mutual characteristic. Caldwell had also struggled with alcoholism, although she worked to keep her problem private while Knapp discussed hers not only in her book but in the media frenzy surrounding its publication as well. Caldwell felt great empathy, both for the enforced public attention and for the addiction itself.
At the pond, Knapp appeared relieved that Caldwell was more interested in her dog than her book. They traded information about their pets’ personalities and training. Caldwell told Knapp about a distant and hard-to-reach wooded area where she sometimes allowed Clementine to run off her leash. A week later, Caldwell was surprised to discover Knapp and Lucille in the woods that she had described --- and further amazed and delighted to find that Knapp was researching a book about the way humans connect emotionally with dogs.
That encounter was just the doorway to what would become regular day trips with the dogs in tow. As the two women ran Lucille and Clementine in various forests and meadows throughout eastern Massachusetts, they talked, constantly and deeply. After their long rambles, Knapp would suggest, "Let's take the long way home," all the better to talk even longer. When they returned to their homes, they picked up their conversations on the phone. As they grew ever closer, they not only found that they had more and more in common, but that their personalities meshed in a way that balanced their relationship. When Caldwell worried about falling through ice while rescuing their dogs, for example, Knapp responded in a manner that calmed her friend. Although Caldwell described Knapp as a sprinter while she herself ambled, she noted that Knapp slowed her gait to match Caldwell's. Early on in their relationship, Caldwell realized, "Oh no --- I need you." Their intimacy grew and evolved during the years of their ongoing, ever deepening and infinite conversation.
Caldwell's tale of her relationship with Knapp opens with "It's an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too." Even as we watch their friendship strengthen in the early part of the book, we know what is coming as Caldwell puts words to her inevitable loss. LET'S TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME is a lyrical homage to a true love connection. Although a heart-wrenching and intense read with magnified emotions, it glimmers with joy and hope. This story will linger in readers’ minds as a kind of prism through which to view our own friendships.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on December 30, 2010