Caroline Knapp,
The Merry Recluse:
A Life in Essays

(Counterpoint, 2004)

Caroline Knapp's fifth memoir was published posthumously after the author died from cancer at age 42. The book consists of newspaper and magazine essays written over a 15-year period. The columns are presented thematically rather than chronologically, in sections about family relationships, grief/recovery/sobriety, the state of the world and personal reflections.

Early essays discuss female friendships, girl crushes and Knapp's relationship with her mother and father. She was a raging, active alcoholic when both passed away within a year of one another. Knapp also covers ground on two topics she's renowned for -- anorexia (as described in her memoir Appetites: Why Women Want) and alcoholism (as described in Drinking: A Love Story). Her essays on recovery provide additional insight and reflection beyond what was in her other books. None of the essays were published during her active alcoholic period in the early 1990s (only one from 1989, a long essay about her eating disorder, was published prior to Knapp's sobriety).

In the lighter essays, Knapp returns to the familiar subject of her dog. One October 1998 piece for the Boston Phoenix is a rebuttal to Ron Rosenbaum's New York Observer column asserting the superiority of his cat over Knapp's dog. Other essays on the state of the world cover topics ranging from Linda Tripp's betrayal of her friend Monica Lewinsky, to life as an office drone in corporate America, to home decoration. The ruminations on life are hit-or-miss, and the fluffier pieces at the end aren't written as powerfully as Knapp's solid essays on addiction and relationships.

If Knapp wasn't already a bestselling author of wide renown, this essay collection would be of little popular interest. The true gems are the essays that expound on the topics of her earlier works Drinking and Appetites. I recommend this book only to admirers looking for additional material from this accomplished and well-spoken woman.

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
5 May 2007

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