How can a writer manage a book about the death of her best friend and a friendship that revolved around dogs, the shared history of recovery from alcoholism, and a deep mutual affinity for reclusive living, and yet have the volume avoid the pitfalls of maudlin sentimentality, false uplift, and simplistic pet literature?  How can such an ultimately grief-stricken book about two such particular people seem universal?

Only reading Let’s Take The Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (Random House) will reveal the answer to that question.

Gail Caldwell won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism in 2001. She was the Chief Book Reviewer for The Boston Globe at that time, and she clearly knows her way around the reporter’s desk as well. But though the crafting of this book is what gives it relevance and page-turning impetus, it’s the heart of the author—a big, broken Texas heart—that causes it to pulse in the hand of the reader.

This is a small book, so to tell any of it is to give large chunks of it away. Know only that Caroline Knapp, Caldwell’s dear friend and soulmate, the etching tool of her very authenticity, it seems—was an erudite, shy, determined, graceful author who wrote a blockbuster book entitled Drinking: A Love Story. In addition to portraying an upper-class upbringing, it detailed the writer’s journey into anorexia and commonplace alcoholic behaviors, as well as her singular courage in facing their meaning in her life. It thrust fame upon Knapp, if only briefly, and one gets the sense that her bond with Caldwell began in balance to that fame—balance being absolutely essential for Knapp, a devoted sculler who rowed miles and miles in perfect form each morning on the Charles River.

Ah yes, a river does run through this book. A river of devotion to the natural landscape’s role in a city, of the ways in which devotion to dogs is a two-way proposition, of the way that growing older can give women a sensible view of their relationship to men. A complicated river, as all interesting rivers must be, one that changes not one whit for the rower upon it while offering experiences those on the shore can never imagine.

Caroline Knapp died in 2002 at the age of 42. We know this at the book’s opening, yet Gail Caldwell—nine years older than Knapp and more than a decade into sobriety when they meet—brings her back with every paragraph.  If not to life, then to the mystery of what lies beyond.

Fiction Writing 101 tells us that we must care about at least one of the characters in a book. Let’s Take The Long Way Home is the graduate course in nonfiction, where we care about every single character—human and not, met and unmet. Most importantly, we care deeply about the four central characters—two wounded women and their two strong dogs—walking through lovely landscapes and managing on rough waters to a final point that offers no solace, but a mystery whose beauty Caldwell manages to limn, despite the grief she portrays with a bravery seldom encountered and a truth-telling that can only leave us wiser.

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