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.

Review: Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl is a memoir of the editor of Gourmet magazine’s childhood. I love to read, and I love to eat, so this book, combining two of my favorite things, seemed like a natural choice for me. It’s about food, yes, but it’s more about growing up in a dysfunctional home and finding comfort wherever you can.

Ruth has a complicated relationship with her manic and delusional mother, aka The Queen of Mold (“I can make a meal out of anything”). Mom brings chaos to the family with culinary disasters that include poisoning the entire guest list of her son’s engagement party with soup made from crabmeat that was left out for two days to thaw. While it smelled iffy even to her, she just added more sherry to the soup and declared it fine. Later, when guests started calling to let them know how sick they were and wondered if it had been the food, she said, “Nonsense. We all feel fine. And we ate everything!” You had to have a strong stomach to grow up in the Reichl household!

Her dysfunctional parents leave young Ruth to her own devices much of the time. A lonely Ruth finds love and affection through food preparation with other people, picking up lessons and learning to care for others while expressing herself creatively in the kitchen.

She makes apple dumplings and potato salad with a grandmother (who isn’t really her grandmother) and was later sent to boarding school in Montreal where she meets a true gourmet. The book follows her through high school (where she makes devil’s food cake for a boy, again connecting food with affection) and college (learning to make coconut bread with her roommate’s Caribbean mother) and into young adulthood, where she works at a doomed French restaurant in Detroit. She later marries Doug and has adventures and wonderful meals, the best one being on a hill in Greece. She even becomes a cook in a commune in California, where on one memorable Thanksgiving the idealistic group makes dinner entirely from supermarket discards. I worried that this meal would poison others, completing the circle with Ruth’s mom and that fateful engagement party in the beginning of the book, but Ruth’s meal turns out fine.

It was interesting to see how much the people she met and cared for influenced the way she felt about food. Throughout we see how food and relationships shaped the life of the future famous restaurant critic and editor. Food is “a way of making sense of the world” according to Ruth.

Packed with colorful characters and recipes, this is a sweet and charming memoir of Reichl’s early life. I read and enjoyed Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires a while back, which is a memoir of her days as a restaurant critic for the NY Times. Tender at the Bone was even better. I highly recommend it for foodies and non-foodies alike.