Book Review: Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

May 26, 2010
Title: Drinking: A Love Story
Author: Caroline Knapp
Genre: Non Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 1996
Source: I purchased this book

Drinking: A Love Story is a book about alcoholism and about one woman's fight to get her life back. For 20 years Caroline Knapp drank and drank and drank. She loved drinking -- almost everything about it. The sound of the cork being pulled from the wine bottle. The sound of the liquid being poured into the glass. She loved it all. 

It made her forget her troubles, at least temporarily because she was able to melt into the liquid, and it made her calm and relaxed. The trouble was that she simply could not stop at one drink, or even two. This is the story of one woman's triumph over the bottle. It was truly a love story until near the end, when she finally realized that she wasn't drinking because she was unhappy, but she was unhappy because she was drinking.

Caroline Knapp was the daughter of a famous psychiatrist father. and an artist mother, and grew up in an intellectually stimulating but emotionally deadening environment. There was always an unspoken but clearly felt tension in her home. She was a top student, graduating magna cum laude from Brown University. She appeared to have a bright future. But Caroline was already drinking heavily, and it was affecting her personal and professional lives. 

After graduating, she worked as a waitress in Providence, Rhode Island, and had affairs with men who were wrong for her. She also had eating disorders, as it not uncommon for alcoholics to have other addictive behaviors. Her weight dropped to about 80 pounds. She also suffered from an intense, crippling shyness, and extremely low esteem. Caroline was also a very heavy smoker, which many alcoholics are (you could smoke in bars back then.). Alcoholics who drank in bars usually would sit for hours, drinking and smoking.

Caroline finally got a job as a newspaper writer, and she was good at it. She eventually moved to Boston and worked as a writer and editor at the Boston Herald. Caroline was the epitome of the professional alcoholic, because she never did anything to affect her work, she never killed anybody, despite driving drunk numerous times, and she appeared, on the surface, to have it all together. She would head out after work to have drinks at the bar across the street from her job, and then head to a liquor store to pick up more liquor. She continued to have damaging relationships with men.

Finally, two catastrophic events occurred: her parents died approximately one year apart. Caroline fell to pieces and drank even more heavily. She finally hit bottom and realized that she had to get help. She already had a therapist, but she needed a place that dealt with alcoholism. Talk therapy alone rarely helps alcoholics much because it does not take into account the overwhelming physical need for alcohol. She also did not believe that simply going to AA meetings would be enough. So she went to a well-known rehab center in New Hampshire.

Caroline received help in rehab, and after finishing rehab she then attended AA meetings every night, realizing that the meetings "provided relief the same the drink used to." Caroline still struggled with extreme shyness even after this book was released to huge critical acclaim. After the success of this book she wrote other books about dogs and eating disorders.

This book is poignant for several reasons. One is that the book describes poetically just how a person can become an alcoholic, that while there is a strong emotional reason there is also an incredible physical need for the booze. Alcoholics appear to be wired differently. Perhaps that is why alcoholics tend to run through several generations of families. Caroline's own father was probably an alcoholic.

The book has a hopeful ending, but is also sad because of reasons that Caroline could not have known about at the time she wrote the book. At one point her mother takes her for a walk on the beach and tells her that she's terribly worried about her daughter's drinking. "This is very serious. It's more serious than smoking." After Caroline's father died of cancer, and while the mother was dying of cancer herself, her last words to Caroline were: "Stop smoking." Caroline continues:
Two months after she died, I enrolled in a smoking-cessation program at a local hospital, aware on some level I was tackling the wrong substance. I dropped out within three weeks and continued to smoke, but the words stuck with me. Stop smoking. I think she meant: Stop suffering. Stop being so self-destructive. Stop killing yourself.
But Caroline's mother was right. Caroline apparently did not drink again, but she continued to smoke. In 2002, six years after the publication of the book, at the age of 42, Caroline Knapp died of lung cancer.

10 comments:

  1. Great review. I'll be adding this to my TBR list. Alcoholism is such a traumatic affliction. It's always uplifting to hear of people that are able to escape its stranglehold.

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  2. @Peachy -- yes, it's a beautifully written book and so poignant.

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  3. I was really moved by this book. I read it before she died, and then read it again when I heard she had passed away.

    She has a wonderful collection of essays, published posthumously. It's called The Merry Recluse.

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  4. @Ravenous Reader -- I've been meaning to read her essays, because she was such a talented writer I want to read all of her books!

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  5. You have a very good blog that the main thing a lot of interesting and
    useful!hope u go for this site to increase visitor.

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  6. @Claudia Lawrence -- thanks so much Claudia. I love your photos!

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  7. I came over from SITS...

    I normally read fantasy stuff, so does all my family and friends, so I definitely need a good book reviewer to help me branch out and find something good outside my comfort zone :)

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  8. @Gina -- I have to admit that I rarely read fantasy. I actually love non-fiction: memoirs and biographies. I also love novels and short story collections, and even romance novels (Betty Neels is my favorite).

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  9. Caroline was the typical"non-drunk" as far as stereotypes go, it just goes to show you anyone can be a victim to alcohol or any other substance. very well written

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