Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp/two memoirs, two friends

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Let's Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell's classic and classically beautiful memoir of friendship, hit me deeply when I first read it.  It is a dignified book, a true story of loss.  Caldwell had written of her friend, the writer Caroline Knapp, who had fought off anorexia and alcoholism by the time the two met, and who had shared, with Caldwell, a love of rivers and of dogs.  Caldwell had written of Knapp's dying, from lung cancer, just as Knapp's life was finally making sense.  Personal happiness and calm had been found.  A door had opened.  Cancer slammed it shut.

Caldwell's memoir left me with a lingering desire to know more about Caroline Knapp, and yesterday I finally read Drinking: A Love Story, the famously famous memoir about Knapp's slide into and recovery from alcoholism. I'm not sure why I had avoided this book for so long.  I'm not sure what I thought it would be.  But what I discovered, in Drinking, was an immeasurably intelligent and quiet voice.  I found a woman I am sure I would have liked.

There isn't the bravado, in Drinking, of the Big Survivor.  There isn't the boast one sometimes hears in the recounting of harrowing tales—Can you believe I was like that?  Can you imagine I survived?  I know it's nasty, I know I was a jerk, but secretly, really, wasn't it all kind of wondrous, in a twisted (I'll admit it) way?  There isn't the sense that Knapp believes her story trumps all other tales. There is only the sense that perhaps by telling her tale—by exploring the slide, the massive deceptions, the dangers, the heat and seeming loveliness of alcohol, the balm of community—she may be helpful to others.  This is not memoir as exorcism or exhibitionism, in other words.  It's not a memoir in which the rememberer pretends to remember any more than she does.  It's a book that is moving and hopeful and sad.  It's impact, on me, will forever linger.

I returned to Caldwell's memoir after finishing Drinking.  I read again those opening pages.  I understood—it was even clearer now—the size of Caldwell's loss.


suekush said...

Hi Beth - I found your site while searching for anything recent on Gail Caldwell. I had just finished reading her memoir, having read Caroline's years before, and wanted to connect with someone about it. I am stuck in my chair by the grief and beauty of that book. Really: I have things to do, but can't seem to move.

On a peppier note, I also received a PW starred review recently. It was the highlight of my writing career. I wish there was some kind of physical token of such an honor - a graduation cord or even a t-shirt that says: STARRED.

I think I'll go try to follow you on Twitter or FB. Then get the hell out of this chair.

Susan Kushner Resnick

Becca said...

So interesting that you would write about this book today, because I just pulled it off the shelf to re-read. I’ve read Knapp’s On Drinking several times, because it moved me so much. The raw honesty but also the beauty of her writing combines to create such a memorable book, and is everything memoir should be.

I also love the collection of her essays that was published posthumously - The Merry Recluse. If you haven’t read it, I think you would enjoy it.

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