Review: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

imageDB-2.cgiTruth & Beauty by Ann Patchett is the story of the author’s friendship with troubled fellow author and poet, the late Lucy Grealy.  

I read Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face last year and developed very strong, protective feelings for this brilliant girl/woman who was permanently disfigured by Ewing Sarcoma and the resultant treatment and surgeries.  When I heard that Bel Canto author Patchett had written about their friendship, I couldn’t wait to read more about Lucy, but then I quickly changed my mind when I discovered Lucy’s family’s reaction to the book.

The idea of the book lingered in the back of my mind, however, but because I didn’t want to betray Lucy, I refused to buy it.  Then it seemed like I was just being stubborn about it. Finally, on a trip to the bookstore, I happened to see it on a table and, wanting to be close to Lucy again, I took it home.  Part of me is glad I read it but another part wishes I’d left it alone.  The book made me appreciate Ann Patchett’s writing more (I wasn’t a fan) but it made me think less of Lucy.

Ann and Lucy attended Sarah Lawrence college at the same time but were not friends.  Ann knew who Lucy was (everyone did) but Lucy was only vaguely aware of Ann.  Then they were both accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, where they were roommates and where their love for each other emerged and grew.

patchettgrealey‘Do you love me?  Do you love me best?  Am I your favorite?  Do you think I’m pretty?  Do you think I’m talented?  Will I ever have sex again?’  Lucy plagues Ann with these questions on a continuous basis over two decades.  Who would want to be friends with this clingy, needy, self absorbed woman?  I couldn’t find the Lucy I knew anywhere, the strong, brave, dazzling presence of Autobiography of a Face.  

Lucy had a brutal battle with the aftereffects of cancer.   Her disfigured jaw made speech difficult and swallowing nearly impossible.  She had 6 teeth in her mouth because she didn’t have a stable jaw to hold dental implants.  Her diet consisted of very soft foods and alcohol.  She loved to drink and party and socialize, but basic things like eating and talking were a constant struggle.  Her love life was complicated by her lack of self esteem and her distorted self image.  Her ever-increasing pile of medical bills seemed insurmountable, so she just didn’t open them.  Disorganized and irresponsible, she missed deadlines and frittered away writing workshops.  Chaos ruled.

Ann, the long suffering friend, the ant to Lucy’s grasshopper in that old fable, went to great financial, physical, and emotional lengths for Lucy, but it was hard to understand why.  The relationship seemed extremely one-sided, almost a parent/child dynamic, but with a peer.  What was Ann getting out of it?  Lucy would sit in Ann’s lap, demand her attention when Ann was speaking to others, whisper to her during dinners out, pout if Ann got too successful or earned a writing fellowship or received an award.  Then later there were lies and drug abuse to contend with, and while Ann occasionally lost patience with Lucy, she stuck by her to the end.  Why would anyone put up with Lucy’s crap, unless they had some kind of savior complex? 

But this book.  What does it say about Ann?  About Lucy?  I can’t shake the feeling that in writing this book, Ann wanted to get back at Lucy for the shabby way she treated her by baring her secrets to the world.  Is this admirable? Is this the way a true friend would behave?

And Lucy.  Can anyone be this one dimensional, this needy and self involved, and still have so many friends?  She was an absolute magnet for others and had dozens and dozens of friends, yet in this book I can’t see any redeeming qualities in her at all.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ann Patchett loved Lucy Grealy but I question her motivation for writing this book.  It feels like a payback of sorts.  It is not really a biography, an autobiography, or a memoir, because it doesn’t tell the story of either of their lives, only the shared bits, and only from one vantage point, so I’m not sure what to call it.  

If you’re going to read this book, read Autobiography of a Face as well.  At least you get a more fully realized image of Lucy Grealy that way.  If I had read Truth & Beauty first, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any more about Lucy, ever.  I’d recommend the two books together but I wouldn’t recommend reading this one on it’s own. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair or accurate by itself.  If you’re interested in either writer, I’d recommend it, although I’m not sure it has much worthwhile to say about friendship in general.  It is well written and I can appreciate Ann Patchett’s talent, but it’s hard to know what is true, and there’s not a lot here I’d call beautiful.

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45 Responses

  1. Bel Canto is one of my all-time favorite books. So I think I’d rather not get to know the author all that personally.

    • I’m one of the few who really disliked Bel Canto, I’m afraid. Ann is a SAINT in this book. She is the good friend and Lucy is the bad friend, so I don’t think it would tarnish your opinion of Ann. It might even enhance it.

      • Hi Lisa,

        Having read Bel Canto, I too, went and borrowed my library’s copy of Truth and Beauty. The write up in the back of the book made it sound very interesting.

        I read it quickly, over the course of two days, and two days later, still thinking about it, I went in search of reviews to see how other people felt about it. I liked the beginning and all of the stuff about them being writers, and even Lucy’s New York lifestyle and making the rounds when her book was so wonderfully received.

        But by the end, I was thinking who would write all of this stuff about their friend? I thought the book made Lucy seem sad (and pathetic at times) and by the end just tired of the whole thing, the drugs an outlet for her enduring sadness. And about Ann, I was thinking — who would be that kind of selfless friend over and over to someone so needy and selfish?

        I was happy to see your review. Because though I really wanted to like the book, it didn’t shed a fantastic light on Lucy — it left a bad taste in my mouth or at least a very sad feeling of a difficult life come to a premature end. I guess Ann was in the midst of her grief, and perhaps was in some ways mad at her friend for checking out and maybe taking, what Ann may have considered, the easy way out.

        I think she did try to touch on the beauty of Lucy’s writing more so in the beginning, but by the end when Lucy lost her job, etc. she just seemed so scattered and way out of control. And Ann told so relatively little about her own struggles in comparision, that it was too onesided of a story.

        I was wondering about Lucy’s family, too, what their reaction would be to the whole thing. What a way to open her article, with the image of the Muslim woman with the bacon on her dead body. WOW!!!! Talk about a punch in the stomach.

        I will read Lucy’s book now. Thank you for your review. I enjoyed it!

  2. It’s a bit of a shame that the portrayal in this book is so one-sided. This is one rare instance where my educational background would help a ton because I’m used to judging things by their authors and motivations. If Ann Patchett was really interested in celebrating her friend, would she have portrayed her in such a negative light? I don’t think so. Great review.

  3. Really interesting review. I loved the writing in Bel Canto, so I’m not uninterested, but it sounds like Lucy comes across as really annoying. I wonder if another book will come out later with both points of view…

  4. I read Truth and Beauty first (I’m a Patchett fan), and that actually did make me want to read Autobiography of a Face. I totally agree with your suggestion to read them together for perspective.

    I found it interesting that Ann played almost no role in Lucy’s book, while Lucy was so central to Ann’s – it did make me wonder about their relationship. Great review!

  5. I haven’t read this one or the other book for that matter but what you shared here leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It seems so one-sided and as you said, how could Lucy have had so many friends if she were truly like this?

  6. I’ve read almost all of Patchett’s books and thought this was was really good. Have you read the Lucy Grealy memoir “Autobiography of a Face”? Anne Patchett was her riend if I recall correctly.

  7. Whoa. I don’t know if I could handle this book. It sounds so engaging, but in a frustrating way? What a great review, thanks!

  8. Hmm.
    Thanks for the honest review. I’ve got Autobiography of a Face sitting here on my tbr pile and Truth and Beauty has been on my wish list for ages. Now I’m rethinking both, to tell you the truth.
    There are so many amazing books out there that I want to read that I’m not sure I’m interested in the frustration you’re describing.
    I’m glad you share what you really feel when you read books. It’s always so good to hear what someone is thinking and taking away from what they read.

  9. I have heard a lot about this book and the controversy swirling around it, and have to say that is one of the reasons I picked it up a couple of weeks ago. I have not read much from or about Lucy, but there is something in her story that I find fascinating. I will probably try to read Autobiography of a Face first, but I truthfully can’t wait to get into Truth and Beauty.

  10. What a great review, Lisa. You asked every question that should be asked about this. The problem is, there don’t seem to be any easy answers. Why didn’t Patchett just dump her? I’m still not sure whether I want to read it.

    There were a few times during my perusal of …Face when I thought Grealy seemed a bit too whiny and needy, so perhaps Patchett is telling the total truth.

    I guess we’ll never know.

  11. Thanks for the review!

    I don’t know if I’d read either Autobiography of a Face or Truth and Beauty on my own, but I think the pair would make for terrific book club discussion– maybe Face one month, then T&B the next. I’ll have to think about suggesting that next time we pick books.

  12. I remember reading that article when you first posted it…it made me decide I didn’t want to read either book.

  13. I just don’t know what to think about all of this… it’s fascinating. But like you, I’m torn. Is it fascinating to the point that I want to read? Or fascinating and I want to stay as far away as possible?

  14. I had pretty much the same reaction you did (“where’s the beauty?” to Ann’s book Truth and Beauty. So I wasn’t interested in hearing more about Lucy. Perhaps I’ll reconsider now.

  15. I feel no one is a completely reliable narrator. Obviously, both Anna and Lucy had different perspectives, but they also have very different lives, don’t they?

    I read both–T & B first, then Face. In response to some other comments here, I’d like to say that Lucy is the focus of both books–Patchett’s and the “autobiography”, so let’s not belittle Patchett by saying Lucy was more important to Ann than Ann was to Lucy–both books are about Lucy.

    Secondly, Lucy obviously had a great need to surround herself with people, people, people. Patchett was busy working, something Lucy didn’t do too much of, due to her many health problems, addictions, and emotional/mental conditions.

    I enjoyed both books, and was very glad I read Lucy’s version of her life after reading about her friendship with Ann. Both author’s benefited from both books, as far as I am concerned, since one generates interest in the other. I disagree with Suellen Grealy here. This is a win win situation. It is just too bad Lucy didn’t survive to reap the benefits of her own work.

  16. I felt the same way when I read this book. I had already read Autobiography of a Face, so I felt I had a bigger picture of Lucy Grealy. And though I don’t question Ann’s right to write the book, while reading it I definitely questioned her motives. I had some of the same questions you did, and it made me lose some respect for Ann. That said, I still enjoy Ann Patchett’s fiction…

  17. [...] it! Bibliolatrist on Review: The Virgin Suicides b…gentle reader on Review: Truth & Beauty: A…Shauna Potts on Suellen Grealy, sister of auth…Care on Review: The Virgin Suicides [...]

  18. [...] has been a good week for reading.  I finished Truth & Beauty, read and reviewed The Virgin Suicides, got about 2/3rds of the way through Beach Trip for our [...]

  19. [...] has been a good week for reading. I finished Truth & Beauty, read and reviewed The Virgin Suicides, got about 2/3rds of the way through Beach Trip for our [...]

  20. [...] has been a good week for reading. I finished Truth & Beauty, read and reviewed The Virgin Suicides, got about 2/3rds of the way through Beach Trip for our [...]

  21. What is the book blogosphere without controvery!??

    I’ve stayed away from Truth & Beauty because of several not-positive reviews I’ve read (mostly questioning motive of Pachett, as you do).

    If/when I feel compelled to read about Lucy (and Ann), I’ll take your advice and start with AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE.

  22. YAA Adding this to my bookmarks. Thank You

  23. I’ve read two of Ann’s books, The Magician’s Assistant” and “Truth & Beauty”, and both profile Ann Patchett’s brillance! Lisamm’s reluctance to give Ann credit for her thoughtful portrayal of Lucy seems to stem from only jealousy. Why should she be so influenced by Lucy’s family (when it’s obvious that any family member is going to be prejudiced!) and miss an opportunity for another great read (of a distinguised author’s account of their friendship)?
    I can hardly wait now to read my next Ann Pritchett book and Lucy’s book as well. As for the misunder-standing of Ann and Lucy’s relationship, as alluded to by family members, I think perhaps they and your other responders, have not taken into account the philosophical climate of the town (Provincetown) in which both the women lived and spent so much time.
    …. a fan of both Lucy and Ann

    • Thank you for this comment, Jonnie! Lisamm’s review of Truth and Beauty was very shallow and missed the incredible grace and tenderness of both the writing and the friendship. Many of the responders (here) to Lisamm’s review choose to laud the review without even – admittedly – reading the book! Additionally, the response included here by Lucy’s sister does not actually point to any in-justice carried out by Ann Patchett. Suellen simply implicates Ann – we can’t know whether this is fairly or un-fairly; she offers no significant evidence. In Suellen’s review, an intern writes a poor Q&A, a different friend is blamed for taking Lucy’s painting, and Ann is simply criticized for being there too much for Lucy. Both Suellen’s review and Lisamm’s review are poorly grounded and offer no strong (or even weak) cases for their arguments.
      — submited by sam, a reader of all the books and reviews discussed in this chain

  24. Jonnie, Your comment gave me a good laugh. What is it I’m supposed to be jealous of? And, I didn’t miss an opportunity to read the book. You are commenting on THE REVIEW of the book, which I obviously read!

    You may think Ann Patchett (not Pritchett) is brilliant but I personally am not a big fan, and what’s wrong with that? To each his own, as they say.

    And what is it about the philosophical climate of Provincetown you would like people to take into account?

    • You come off as sort of a rude, crass person. It makes it a little hard to put any stock in your reviews.

  25. Lisa M, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, I did read Truth & Beauty first and in doing so have no interest in reading Lucy’s autobiography. I thought Truth & Beauty was an ugly depiction of Ann’s “beloved” friend and can’t for the life of me figure out why she wrote this. I can only assume, since it doesn’t honor her friends memory and Lucy’s family didn’t endorse it, that her motivation was financial gain and publicity for herself.

  26. [...] I did go on to read Truth & Beauty.  My review is HERE. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Book Review: “My Family Alphabet” by [...]

  27. I didn’t much like Autobiography of a Face. I thought it was dishonest and didn’t even think it was that well written. Lucy never came to terms with her disfigurement, as she implies. God knows it would be almost impossible to. I’ve known other people like her who attract friends by the bushelful — most of whom are in it for the boasting points — so it didn’t surprise me that such a clingy, needy, selfish person who was touched with the glamor of disfigurement and death was superficially popular with her peers.

    I didn’t like Truth and Beauty either. I had no idea why Ann genuinely adored Lucy. When she finally did rebel, it was long past time and it doesn’t seem to have affected Lucy’s decision to, or carelessness in killing herself, since Ann wasn’t that important to Lucy anyway. Anyone who flirts with Lucy’s lifestyle is likely to die young. And talk about an enabler — she was willing to write Lucy’s book. She was even willing to let Lucy live with her and use drugs, just to keep her around. Why? It’s a mystery for sure.

    As a childhood cancer survivor myself (thyroid, so very mildly disfiguring, often not even noticed) I recognized Lucy’s descriptions of hospital life and her feeling that the cancer was no big deal.. The book isn’t about having cancer, and that’s as it should be since children don’t experience illness the way adults do. It’s about her face and her identity and her claim that she finally realized she could separate the two. She couldn’t, and that was the main dishonesty. I don’t believe any of us can.

    As for Ann, I haven’t read any of her other books, but I detested the person she described in Truth and Beauty. What was the attraction, other than martyrdom and sainthood? Perhaps the chance to compare her own complacent anthood with Lucy’s grasshopper fecklessness?

    Then SueEllen — I don’t get her beef either. How did T&B hijack her grief? She keeps implying things, e.g. that Ann stole the picture which her nephews should have had, but Ann wasn’t even in the apartment. Yet that throw-away mention is followed by a paragraph of whining about the picture and we leave with a vague feeling that Ann did take the picture, or did something equally awful. She didn’t tell Lucy’s mother than Lucy was dead. She didn’t put up the pictures that the other sister had to walk by on the way to work. It’s absurd to suggest that she should have written the book and then put it under her bed; should Lucy have done the same? After all, they were both writing about their own experiences from their own perspectives. Lucy’s parents don’t come off any better in Lucy’s own book — but apparently SueEllen excuses that because it’s Lucy’s “own” story. But it’s Ann’s too. Ann’s version as told to her by Lucy.

    I just don’t get the whole controversy. Two modestly talented but well-connected women, one glamorous and one diligent, want to make writing their careers and do. One of them is weak for various reasons and kills herself after an annoying life; the other is almost comically stable and doesn’t, after an equally annoying life. And then SueEllen comes in with her lament. Excuse me for suspecting that her complaint may be more about not having been able to cash in on the Lucy factory herself.

  28. I have only read Truth and Beauty and not Autobiography of a Face. I am curious about Lucy’s other writings because glimpses of Lucy’s interesting intellect peep through her letters and activities. I didn’t question much why Ann was writing this book though. To me, it felt like exactly the kind of way a writer, someone who best expresses themselves though writing, would express her conflicting feelings about a nearly life-long relationship. There’s no doubt Lucy must’ve been a difficult friend to keep at times. The fact that Ann did seems like part of her motivation for writing the book: an exploration of why the two were even friends in the first place (ant-grasshopper thing). As I read the book it seemed obvious to me why Ann was writing because I saw so many parallels with friends I’ve had for so long that I can’t imagine ever not being friends, even if as we grew into adulthood, some of these individuals revealed qualities I didn’t necessarily approve of or like. I think Ann, as a writer, was exploring, in the way she knows best, a complicated relationship with as many pros and cons as any real relationship -in a way, almost like a relationship with a sister more so than a friend since ‘breaking it off’ doesn’t seem to be on the table. I also think that Ann was brave to realize she really didn’t have limits on her friendship. There would always be another favor she would do or another way she would help. It’s Lucy who accuses her of having a savior complex – at this point I got the distinct sense that part of this book was Ann’s way of expunging hurtful things like this – things that may also have a grain of truth. To me, the book was just a very honest portrayal of a relationship Ann had had that was complex and probably still confusing to her. Almost like reading someone’s journal.

  29. I loved Truth and Beauty. What I loved was that Ann Patchett had the courage to help us all wrestle with what is TRUE for so many of us – people whom we deeply love and are committed to are often far from perfect, or fair, or responsive – and yet we still love them, and they still do, indeed, possess some kind of beauty in their souls that sometimes only can be seen from the outside. I think Ms. Patchett was brave and painfully honest in sharing with the world the whole truth about Lucy as she experienced her. Why must someone be all one thing or another? Why are we so rooted in this idea that those we love can only be as warm and generous as, perhaps, we are to them? Lucy was beautiful, needy, brilliant, and deeply flawed – just like so many of the rest of us. Thank you, Ms. Patchett.

  30. After reading, and being vey impressed by, Autobiography of a Face, I was curious to read about Lucy in Ann’s book, Truth and Beauty, but I was saddened, too. While entertaining and informative, I felt Patchett revealed too many personal, painful details about someone she supposedly loved. Maybe it is just hard for me to realize that life can be so painful, that it could drive one to such excesses. Yes, I guess that’s it: For me, Ann’s book illuminates a truth that life can indeed be brutal……. in ways that make me very uncomfortable. I guess I have to thank Ann for having written it. Yet at the same time, my sympathy goes out to Lucy’s family, who seemed to not exist in Lucy’s life, or to have had only a negative influence. Surely each of them could write a story of their own about Lucy……….

  31. I read both “Autobiography of a Face” and “Truth and Beauty.” I had compassion for Lucy Grealy after reading her book; after reading her good friend Ann Patchett’s book I had no compassion for her at all. If you believe Ann Patchett Lucy Grealy was childishly irresponsible, pathologically self-absorbed, a slob, a deadbeat, a drug and surgery addict, and compulsively promiscuous (just who ARE all these guys that wanted to jump into bed with her?). She supposedly had a multitude of devoted friends, yet she whined and moaned constantly that she was lonely and nobody loved her. She did things to deliberately offend Patchett, like bringing a guy to Patchett’s apartment and having sex with him in her bed. She constantly asked Patchett over and over: “do you love me? Best?” “do you think I’ll have sex again?” Do you think I’m pretty? Do you think I’m talented?” She would leap onto Patchett and cling to her like a limpet; she’d snuggle in Patchett’s lap at public gatherings and would want Patchett to carry her around in her arms like an infant. In short, Grealy sounds like the most insufferable person imaginable. But Patchett is smitten like a lover, and accepts all of Grealy’s abhorrent behavior. She feels THRILLED that Grealy has “chosen” her. Talk about pathological co-dependence! This was no wonderful friendship, it was pure co-dependence, a classic drug addict/enabler relationship. This was sickness, not friendship. Towards the end of her book Patchett mildly tries to distance herself from Grealy by not telling her her social plans, so as to avoid Grealy trying to attach herself. Grealy’s being a heroin addict has created a wedge between them. But later Patchett admits “if Lucy could not give up the heroin, I could not give up Lucy” UGH! Patchett’s stunning co-dependence aside, I do agree that her book is probably a subconscious way of getting back at her “pet’ by revealing all of Grealy’s secrets. I think Patchett festered a lot of repressed hostility towards Grealy and her book helped her finally deal with those feelings.

  32. I just finished reading Truth and Beauty and perhaps it is good that I am not familiar with either author’s previous work. I enjoyed the book and though Lucy apparently was a challenging friend in many ways, I disagree that Ann only portrayed that side of her. There is often no reason for why we love the people we love and we often fall in love with people who are not healthy for us, friends included. Ann and Lucy forged their friendship at a very important time in both their lives and obviously they both got something out of it or the friendship would have died long ago especially with the many years of geographic distance. Perhaps some of Ann’s critics feel that she should have only written a glowing ode to her talented friend; however this is a work of non-fiction, and of course it is only from one vantage point (other than Lucy’s letters) because it is impossible to write from someone else’s vantage point. True love and friendship survives despite our personal flaws and abuses. While Lucy’s family may have been hurt by this book, I don’t see any malicious intent here. I never gave much thought to Lucy’s family while reading the book because the book wasn’t a biography of her life; it was a biography of the two women’s unique friendship. So, I don’t think Ann set out to purposely omit Lucy’s family and she certainly did not portray them in a negative light…they just were not central to her friendship with Lucy. As SueEllen pointed out, she only met Ann after Lucy’s death. It seems a lot of reviewers here have some divine insight into Ann or Lucy’s (or both’s) ‘intentions’. However, the only truth any of us will ever know is our own and I think Ann simply wrote the truth she knew and she did it beautifully. I do want to know more about Lucy and intend to read Autobiography of a Face, not just to learn more about her, but also because of her wonderful writing which we get peeks of through her letters to Ann.

  33. BULL!!!! ann p’s book is not impressive to me because it sounds too GOSSIPY. To me…good writing style and trashy material do sometimes make for a good book BUUUT, It cant even begin to compete with ABOAF.

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