Gail Caldwell begins her book with the statement: “I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.” Caldwell details her devastating loss of Caroline Knapp in this tender, poignant and sometimes very funny book. The author has won a Pulitzer prize, so readers can count on a beautifully written tale.
This remarkable friendship went deep, as the two women became soul mates, with separate professional lives, friends and athletic pursuits. So close were they that others sometimes took them for sisters or lovers.
The two had much in common. Successful women writers, athletes, recovering alcoholics, and almost more important, “dog moms” crazy about their large dog companions. It was a dog trainer who knew them separately who suggested they meet. At first, they declined.
When their two dogs got them together, the friendship went full speed ahead. Each had an athletic skill the other coveted. Gail would give Caroline swimming lessons and Caroline would teach Gail how to row (for miles, in a 12-inch wide shell.) Their epic dog walks ranged over wooded reserves in eastern Massachusetts that allowed four hours of trekking. Rowing Caroline’s shell through the labyrinthine reaches of the Charles River flowing through Boston was the other sport, along with the necessary fitness training.
The title comes from Caroline’s statement as they piled into the car returning from a typical hike, walking until “women and dogs were dumb from fatigue.” They talked even when they reached the home of whoever was to be dropped off, then went inside, called each other on the phone and talked more.
Their happy, fulfilled lives continued, without much desire for travels elsewhere. Here Caldwell digresses to describe her own struggle with alcoholism. (Caroline had been sober for some years, even publishing a book about it.) Gail had been a heavy drinker for years, meeting deadlines and claiming liquor as her reward at day’s end. Then came the realization that alcohol had taken over her life and the courageous battle to overcome it.
The book becomes heartbreaking as Caroline, at age 42, gets a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer. (Her smoking was one of the few things the two friends fought about in their five years together.) The attempts to find a treatment that will give her more time, and the final realization that the end is near, make for painful reading. (A friend of mine cried just reading a bookseller’s description of the book.) But savoring this great friendship and the witty humor of both women through life experiences of addiction, romances, love for dogs, the final loss and, for Caldwell, its aftermath, make it a heartrending and worthwhile read.