Sometimes things happen in life that change one’s perspective. Literally. For Gail Caldwell, hip surgery made her five-eighths of an inch taller. It was a new view, and she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

Caldwell had suffered from polio as a child, and for years she attributed her slight limp and growing physical pain to the disease. Though she acknowledged that polio was rough, Caldwell refused to see herself as anything but a survivor. In a new memoir, New Life, No Instructions, she traces how she arrived at this crucial self-perception—the influence of her father, her own stubbornness, the meticulous maintenance of a “tough girl” persona.  But at nearly 60, the jig seems up.

Caldwell’s old physical routines (long swims, walks with big dogs, rowing) seem increasingly untenable. And she’s suffered a series of deep losses—her parents, her close friend Caroline (memorialized in Caldwell’s unforgettable Let’s Take the Long Way Home) and her beloved dog, Clementine. Now she’s at a crossroads. How can she keep moving forward when she struggles to even climb her stairs? Then, to Caldwell’s surprise, a new doctor suggests that a total hip replacement would take away the chronic physical pain that has come to dominate her life. And her new puppy, a Samoyed named Tula, fills her with joy. As Caldwell’s physical body changes, new possibilities are presented for her emotional life.

What I like best about this book is its refusal to compartmentalize. We often think of the body as being separated from the mind, and (more importantly) the heart. Caldwell’s story forces us to think otherwise. It interweaves reflections on everything from dogs to disease, from the loss of loved ones to the pleasures and pains of new beginnings. New Life, No Instructions shows us how a lot of little things—shifted perspectives about memories, a new puppy, dear friends and a height increase of just over half an inch—add up to something much more significant: a new life, embarked upon and embraced.

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