At a Cambridge, Massachusetts, bookstore several years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Gail Caldwell paused her reading to say, “There’s a lot of heart and soul in this room, and I would like to share the evening with you.” Sitting with her memoir Bright Precious Thing feels like an invitation into her own heart and soul. With a breath-catching, lyrical grace, yet enough focus to avoid sentiment, Caldwell lays down the path her life has taken. She credits the women’s movement with inspiring her evolution from rebellious Texan teenager to acclaimed Boston Globe critic. The friends and lovers she spent time with along the way are vividly here as well, for better and for worse. Date rape, an abortion and a long love affair with alcohol run right alongside the things that have sustained and inspired her.
What makes Caldwell’s memoir so much more than a skillful retelling is the way she balances her long past with visits from her present-day neighbor’s child, Tyler. When they meet, the 5-year-old falls in love with Caldwell’s beloved Samoyed dog, Tula. Over the years, that love comes to encapsulate all three of them—the writer helping along the little girl’s imagination, Tyler flashing the fearless self-awareness she seems to have been born with, and Tula blessing them both with her steadfast company. Caldwell calls it “a mutual learning society.” The child reminds Caldwell of “the innocence of forward motion,” and she tries to give Tyler “a palette for all that hope.”
For Caldwell, that palette got its beginnings in the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which “delivered” her from the “traditional paths” of marriage and motherhood. Diving into the past, alternating with sprints into the present, she observes herself as a writer, swimmer, rower, dog lover and friend. She can see the totality of her experiences from her perch much better as she nears 70, and they compose a “bright, precious thing . . . my life.”