Friendship has been on my mind lately, and after writing about it the other day, it’s not surprising that I was drawn to read two books in a row about the powerful bond between two friends.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Gail Caldwell’s memoir of her friendship with writer Caroline Knapp is an exquisite example of what this genre should be. Caldwell takes up this important relationship and examines it in perfectly balanced detail. The reader comes to love both these women, to feel a part of their lives and to share their loss. Caldwell makes the reader feel every emotion and inspires a yearning for the kind of friendship she and Knapp come to share.
Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation.
The two women become friends as adults, meeting in a park while walking their dogs. The two animals become the impetus for their acquaintance, but there are so many other bonds between them that it seems inevitable they will be lifelong companions. The tragedy is, of course, Knapp’s death at age 42, shortly after being diagnosed with lung cancer. The book becomes an elegy to this soul-deep bond, the kind that makes each person stronger and better than before, but also an elegant lament to its loss.
Grief is fundamentally a selfish business. Stripped of its elegant facade -the early onslaught of flowers and casseroles and understanding – it is a place of such particularity that its arc is as complex as the relationship itself. For years, through the trials of writing or dog training or life’s ordinary bruises, Caroline and I had been the soothing, modulated voice in each other’s heads. Now my thoughts went clanging around unnoticed and unheard, lonely music with too much bass. For months, I kept wanting to call her, half assuming I could, to tell her what her dying had meant, what her death had done to my life.
When I finished this slender volume, I wasn’t quite ready to give up my experience with friends, so I went to my bookstacks in search of Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s book about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Again, two women, so close they are in many ways each other’s better half. And then, one of them dies, and the other is left to reshape herself and her life.
Patchett and Grealy become friends shortly after college, and the pair are as different as Caldwell and Knapp are similar. Grealy, who lost part of her face to childhood cancer and suffered years of reconstructive surgery, is an extremely needy person, and Patchett’s role is often to fulfill those needs at the expense of her own. At times, the friendship is exhausting, yet it endures through 20 years of love, fame, drugs, despair, and loss. This book ends when Grealy dies of an accidental drug overdose, and we get only a glimpse of the way Patchett will move forward from this loss, one she never allowed herself to believe in despite Grealy’s years of illness.
Lucy had a nearly romantic relationship with Death. She had beaten it out so may times that she was convinced she could go and kiss all she wanted and still come out on the other side. Lucy, weighing about a hundred pounds, having survived thirty-eight operations, had become officially invincible. She believed that the most basic rules of life did not apply to her, and over the course of our friendship, without me knowing when it had happened, I had come to believe it myself. The sheer force of Lucy’s life convinced me that she would live no matter what.
That was my mistake.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books as companions to one another – it was interesting to look at four women, all writers, who developed such extremely close friendships only to have them severed by an early death.