Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Emotional Physicality in Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home

Read this.
This memoir is gorgeous and heartbreaking. Some people define it as a "grief memoir," but I believe it is first and foremost a friendship memoir, as the subtitle states on the cover. That's what I think of when I think of this book.

Caldwell creates such a close emotional connection with the reader that our empathy kicks into high gear. She does this partly by describing her physical response to emotion which invites us into the immediacy, the urgency of the scene.

Near the beginning of her story, Caldwell and her dog are taking a long walk in a park--where she and Caroline Knapp often walked together with their dogs--and is suddenly overwhelmed with grief from the loss of Caroline, her closest friend: “I felt a desolation so great,” she writes, “that for a moment my knees wouldn’t work.” The attachment between her and Caroline has been ripped apart by Caroline's death, and the result is a profound, physical grief.


I know that feeling, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. The sensation of your knees buckling from a sudden wave of intense emotion is difficult to forget, and a universal, human way to connect with a reader. I imagine it as I read the scene: the shock effect of feeling numb, blood pooling away from my brain, a strange faintness that's not actually fainting, and then the knees go. Knapp evokes this with the short phrase "my knees wouldn't work," somehow much more satisfying than "my knees buckled."

In a beautiful scene that takes place at a lake near the White Mountains, Caldwell expresses the ease with which she and Knapp combined physical activity with emotional connection:
[Knapp] rowed the length of the lake and I swam its perimeter. I was the otter and she was the dragonfly, and I’d stop every so often to watch her flight, back and forth for six certain miles. Sometimes she pulled over into the marshes so that she could scrutinize my flip turns in the water.
We know they’re doing more than simply enjoying the lake together. They can’t help but stop and observe the other, with no self-consciousness or fear of judgment. Each feels compelled to give the other space to perform, to witness and validate her prowess at her sport. This scene depicts the natural sharing and exchange of the physical that both speaks to and enhances their mutual attachment.

I can't say enough good things about this book. The friendship between Caldwell and Knapp is intense, utterly genuine, and so beautifully rendered that it makes me long for such a relationship, even with its ultimate gut-wrenching grief.

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