Truth & 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.
‘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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