In her third and latest memoir, “New Life, No Instructions,” Gail Caldwell offers the kind of wisdom and grace you’d wish a friend, sister, or mother might deliver when you’re circling the drain. “Any change that matters, or takes,” she explains, “begins as immeasurably small. Then it accumulates, moss on stone, and after a few thousand years of not interfering, you have a glen, or a waterfall, or a field of hope where sorrow used to be.”
“New Life, No Instructions” begins where her bestseller, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” leaves off. Caldwell, still mourning the death of her best friend, writer Caroline Knapp (“Drinking, a Love Story”), and fresh off the loss of her beloved dog picks a new puppy, another Samoyed she names Tula.
Rather than invigorating her life, as she expects, the new dog with her “intrepid heart and the strength of a tractor,” underscores Caldwell’s growing frailty, a product of childhood polio that left with her with a slight limp and a powerful sense of herself as a “fighter.”
Inspired by the grit of her Amarillo, Texas, upbringing and by her father, who refused to yield to the idea that his daughter had a disability, Caldwell pushed through challenges — physical: she excelled as a swimmer and later, inspired by Knapp, a recreational rower; and emotional: after years struggling with alcoholism she went through AA and is still sober. But the demands of raising a young dog force Caldwell to admit to a physical decline that she can’t overcome on her own.
After a series of visits with therapists and well-meaning but ineffective doctors, Caldwell finally meets a surgeon who tells her that the scaffolding of her hip needs to be replaced. Along with the hip surgery she decides to lengthen her polio-afflicted leg. Caldwell’s medical procedure and its aftermath is at the heart of “New Life, No Instructions.”
In lesser hands, a 60-year-old’s surgery and six-month rehab would be a dreadfully boring read. As Caldwell admits, “High drama doesn’t much lend itself to rehab.” (Personally I could have been spared the transcription of her surgeon’s report.) But Caldwell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former book critic for The Boston Globe, uses the trials of surgery and recovery to investigate larger truths about age, friendship, and resilience.
In the aftermath of surgery, walking “five-eighths of an inch” taller and with a rebuilt leg, Caldwell must rethink both how she sees herself and how she moves through the world. “What do you do when the story changes in midlife,” Caldwell asks. “When a tale you have told yourself turns out to be a little untrue, just enough to throw the world off kilter? It’s like leaving the train at the wrong stop: You are still you, but in a new place, there by accident or grace, and you will need your wits about you to proceed.”
Moving forward is made more difficult by the extensive losses she’s suffered. In addition to her best friend, Caldwell has also lost her father and her mother, the “valiant coach” who used to mirror her young daughter’s polio exercises while they lay side by side on the living room carpet.
“New Life, No Instructions” doesn’t have the emotional urgency of “Take the Long Way Home,” nor the sense of place of her first memoir, “A Strong West Wind.” This is a more introspective book. But fans and new readers alike will find comfort in Caldwell’s voice — calm and intelligent — as she charts her path through the murky waters of late middle age.
This memoir also offers a rare perspective on the experience of those who rely on pets and friends for company instead of a spouse or children, which women, especially, are expected to have.
“Solitude,” Caldwell wisely observes, “makes you stretch your heart.” In the aftermath of surgery, Caldwell discovers the fullness of a life lived alone, but surrounded by friends. “[O]ver the months of pain and disrepair of that winter, I felt something that made the grimness tolerable: I felt blessed by the tribe I was part of . . . [H]ere I was, supposedly solo, and the real truth was that I had a force field of connection surrounding me.”
Ultimately, “New Life, No Instructions” reveals that there isn’t a single “coming of age” in a life, but many. At that point in adulthood when you think you have it all figured out you may be tested, forced to face shortcomings, and find your footing once again. But, as Caldwell argues, this is not reason to despair.
“You can’t change the tale so that you turned left one day instead of right, or didn’t make the mistake that might have saved your life a day later. We don’t get those choices. The story is what got you here, and embracing its truth is what makes the outcome bearable.”Alysia Abbott is the author of “Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father.”