“Bright Precious Thing” — that’s what Gail Caldwell calls her life — is the fourth memoir by the Pulitzer Prize-winning former book critic for the Boston Globe.
The first, “A Strong West Wind,” described her hardscrabble childhood in west Texas. The second, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” told the story of her joyful midlife (platonic, though Caldwell is bisexual) friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp, which ended cruelly early when Knapp died of cancer at 42. The third, “New Life, No Instructions,” found Caldwell in her 60s, seemingly single for life (despite a steady stream of love affairs), facing health challenges and pondering what wisdom she could offer herself and others.
“Bright Precious Thing” will resonate deeply with many American women in their late 60s and 70s. Caldwell tells how the feminist movement of the 1960s gave her the tools and courage to navigate her youth as a risk-taking, hard-driving, “haughty” young woman. Feminism, she says, “was radical and often joyful and it quite possibly saved my life,” even as it “helped haul the Western world into the modern age.”
That narrative is interwoven with her salute to the more recent #MeToo movement, which helped many older women realize that what they suffered so many times in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was often criminal. Caldwell tells the story of a frat boy who forced her to have sex at an abandoned house while she was high. Back then, she says, it was her embarrassing mistake. Today, it would be considered rape.
Caldwell is a charming and affable writer, proud yet self-deprecating, thoughtful and witty. Her story, while often painful, is never didactic, preachy or judgmental. The truths of her life are still being revealed to her, even as she is about to enter her 70s.
The memoir’s third thread is Caldwell’s friendship with a little neighbor girl who loves to spend time with her, spinning stories and asking questions. In this “star that fell from the sky into my yard,” Caldwell sees the bright promise that rests in every little girl before she encounters the pressures of puberty, peers and everyone else’s expectations. It’s a sweet and thoughtful avenue to the writer’s re-examination of her own life as a woman.
Biographies of and memoirs by lifelong single women who have taken a nonconventional path through life are relatively rare, and Caldwell does a terrific job of reminding us just how interesting and rewarding such a life can be.
Besides, there is something especially endearing about a memoir that follows a woman from her glamorous, gritty youth as a hellion to a happy, aging woman who dotes on her beloved dogs and revels in life’s smaller pleasures. Hey! That’s how it is, many readers will say.
It’s possible to imagine another memoir from Caldwell as she passes through her 70s and 80s. God willing, she will write to us again.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
Bright Precious Thing
By: Gail Caldwell.
Publisher: Random House, 208 pages, $27.