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.

Bedtime Conversation

K:  Tickle me, Mom!

Me: { tickle, tickle }

K: (suddenly serious) Mom, if I ever get cancer, I want the kind Cade and Collin’s dad has.

Me: Oooooooookaaaaaaaaay

K:  I’m not saying I want to have cancer, but if I had to have it, I think he has the best kind.

Me:  Why is that, honey?

K:  Because he has the kind that tickles.

Me:  He does?  How do you know it tickles?  Did the boys tell you that?

K:  No, they didn’t say anything, but I heard you talking to Daddy.

Me: (suddenly understanding, and laughing too hard to breathe)  Oh, honey!  You’ll never get that kind of cancer!  (laughing, wiping tears..)

K:  MOM!  Stop laughing at me!  It’s not funny!  Lots of people get cancer!  What are you laughing about??? (getting angry)

Me:  Sweetie, you misheard me.  I didn’t say Mr. Stewart has cancer that tickles.  I said he has testicular cancer.  Cancer of the testicles.  Girls don’t get that kind.

K:  Why not?  (kinda mad)

Me:  Because girls don’t have testicles.  Only boys do.

K:  Well, that’s not fair!  I’m going to bed!  (stomps off)

Review: Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy is an extraordinary memoir, at once innocent and wise. At age 9, Lucy was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare and usually fatal form of cancer that attacked her face. Her illness required surgery to remove a third of her jaw, followed by more than two and a half years of radiation, horrific chemotherapy treatments, and 15 years of reconstructive surgery.

When Lucy tells about her time in the hospital, she does so simply and without pity. Other sick children were her friends and she never felt like an outsider there. The special attention she received at the hospital became very important to her, because it was sorely lacking at home, and like most kids, she was happy about missing school. Fridays, though, were chemo days and were full of pain and nausea and suffering, but then by mid-week she’d be feeling relatively normal and could enjoy a day or two before the next round of chemo.

She never thought of herself as sick and was mostly unaware of the drastic change in her appearance until she went back to school in the sixth grade. The cancer didn’t set her apart from the other kids so much as the disfigurement of her face. Her peers judged her by her appearance, and the teasing got worse in junior high. Boys were especially vicious, calling her ugly and daring each other to kiss her or ask her out, and this taunting started eating away at her self -esteem. Suffering from social isolation, she began to think that no one would ever love her “in that way”. She found happiness and acceptance through her love of horses, working at a stable and spending time with the animals and the people there, who treated her like anybody else. But throughout adolescence and into young adulthood Lucy pinned her hopes on each new surgery as the one that would fix her face and make her beautiful and thus worthy of love.

Anyone who ever felt different or had any kind of physical characteristic or flaw that they were self conscious about while growing up will relate to Lucy and what she went through. If you were too tall or too small, had a facial birthmark or a big nose, crooked teeth or frizzy hair or acne, if you were not beautiful in the traditional sense or were different in any way- you will understand Lucy. Her profound insight into beauty, and what is beautiful, will hit home with you. It did with me.

Lucy went on to Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Iowa’s MFA program. She became a published poet and author. Autobiography of a Face shows her excellence as a writer, and I only wish there was more of her work to read. Lucy died tragically in 2002 at the age of 39. With her death, the world lost a beautiful literary voice.

The following youtube video includes an interview with Lucy on the Charlie Rose show. Her segment is at the 38 minute, 20 second mark (scroll over). I watched this the day after finishing the book, and seeing her reduced me to tears. She endured so much and seems so sad and small. You can see how pretty she is and imagine what she would have looked like had cancer not ravaged her face. By the way, the sound is a little off, but it’s worth watching just to see Lucy. The same broadcast can be seen here (again, scroll over to 38 min. 20 sec.) and the sound is better, but I couldn’t embed it in my post.

This incredibly moving memoir was first published in 1994 and was reprinted in 2003 with an afterword from Lucy’s friend, author Ann Patchett, who wrote about their friendship in her book, Truth and Beauty. Would anyone like to guess what I’m reading next?

UPDATE: I’ve since decided not to read Truth and Beauty, based in part on Lucy’s family’s reaction to the book.  You can read an article about it by Suellen Grealy, Lucy’s sister, HERE.