Friday, April 8, 2011

Truth & Beauty

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 2004
Trade Paperback, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780060572150
Very Highly Recommended

Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and, after enrolling in the Iowa Writer's Workshop, began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In Grealy's critically acclaimed memoir, Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. In Truth & Beauty, the story isn't Lucy's life or Ann's life, but the parts of their lives they shared. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans twenty years, from the long winters of the Midwest, to surgical wards, to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined ... and what happens when one is left behind.
This is a tender, brutal book about loving the person we cannot save. It is about loyalty, and being lifted up by the sheer effervescence of someone who knew how to live life to the fullest.

My thoughts:

Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett is a memoir of her friendship with author and poet Lucy Grealy. Grealy attained prominence in 1994 with her Autobiography of a Face, which chronicled her years of brutal radiation and chemotherapy for Ewing's sarcoma in her lower jaw, and the subsequent reconstructive surgeries that were largely unsuccessful. Their friendship begins in 1985 when they are in graduate school until 2002, when Grealy died of a heroin overdose at the age of thirty-nine.

This account of their friendship, beginning when they were roommates in graduate school, is told in chronological order through memories, dialogue, and parts of Grealy's letters to Patchett. Patchett compares their friendship to the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. Grealy is the fun-loving, care-free grasshopper while Patchett is the hardworking ant. (But the grasshopper relies on the hardworking ant to save her.)

I have not read Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, but understand that this account shows a different side of her life and her personality. She was a deeply needy, self-absorbed woman who demanded to be the center of attention, either Patchett's or others in her circle. But Grealy also continued to undergo painful reconstructive surgeries. She had a difficult time eating. She lacked self esteem. She was constantly in search of love, or sex. After the great success of Autobiography of a Face she was unable to settle down and write another book. She was disorganized and irresponsible. She was in debt and ignored her bills (or allowed others to pay them).

Admittedly I would not have the patience or tolerance that Patchett had for Grealy, an insecure friend who threw herself into Patchett's arms or sat in her lap, constantly demanding to be the absolute center of attention like a spoiled child. While Patchett does allude to the strain this one-sided neediness could cause, especially when Grealy became a heroin addict, she was also more accepting of all of Grealy's demanding behavior than should be expected.

I actually think this is a deeply moving and totally honest portrayal of Patchett's friendship with Grealy and their relationship. Apparently Lucy Grealy's family was quite upset about Ann Patchett's account of her friendship with Grealy in Truth & Beauty, going as far as to attack Patchett's writing ability, which is absurd. Patchett is a very talented writer who is most certainly not riding on Grealy's fame. (Personally, I knew of Patchett's writing before I even heard the name Lucy Grealy.)

While I understand that the honesty in this account may be hard to read, seldom do people know all sides of a loved one. I'm sure that Grealy showed one side of her personality to her family, while her friends knew a decidedly different aspect of her personality. It may simply be difficult for her family members to accept this side of her life. If anything, Patchett down plays her own successes and accomplishments in comparison to Grealy's.
Very Highly Recommended


The thing you can count on in life is that Tennessee will always be scorching hot in August. In 1985 you could also pretty much count on the fact that the U-Haul truck you rented to drive from Tennessee to Iowa, cutting up through Missouri, would have no air-conditioning or that the air-conditioning would be broken. These are the things I knew for sure when I left home to start graduate school. opening

While Lucy and I would later revise our personal history to say we had been friends since we met as freshmen, just for the pleasure of adding a few more years to the tally, the truth was we did not know each other at all in college. Or the truth was that I knew her and she did not know me. Even at Sarah Lawrence, a school full of models and actresses and millionaire daughters of industry, everyone knew Lucy and everyone knew her story: she had had a Ewing's sarcoma at the age of nine, had lived through five years of the most brutal radiation and chemotherapy, and then undergone a series of reconstructive surgeries that were largely unsuccessful. The drama of her life, combined with her reputation for being the smartest student in all of her classes, made her the campus mascot, the favorite pet in her dirty jeans and oversized Irish sweaters. She kept her head tipped down so that her long dark blond hair fell over her face to hide the fact that part of her lower jaw was missing. pg. 2

We knew things about Lucy the way one knows things about the private lives of movie stars, by a kind of osmosis of information. I do not remember asking or being told. It was simply passed through the air. Not only did we know about Lucy's childhood, her cancer, her bravery, everyone in school knew that Lucy was the poet. pg. 3

Gawking is a look stronger than a stare. The gawk was full of brazen curiosity, pity, and fear, every unattractive human emotion rolled into one unflattering facial expression. If she saw them, and she must have since this was not a discreet spy job, she didn't let on. pg. 9

With or without reading the assignment, Lucy could power through a class on the sheer muscle of her oratory. she could talk. she could talk on the nature of truth and beauty for hours, and after all, what novel or poem or play in an introduction to Literature class couldn't benefit from a truth-and-beauty discussion? pg. 18

Iowa City in the eighties was never going to be Paris in the twenties, but we gave it our best shot. pg. 23


Jeanne said...

I agree that Ann had a lot of patience with Lucy. It might have been interesting to hear the other side of the story, but like you, I'd heard of Patchett before but not Grealy, and Patchett's a good writer so she gets to tell her stories and have people read them!

Lori L said...

Exactly, Jeanne! It would be interesting to hear Grealy's honest account of her behavior, but on the other hand would she have been disciplined enough to actually complete the project?