book review

“Truth and Beauty” by Ann Patchett

Patchett, Ann. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
New York: HarperCollins, 2004
ISBN 0-06-057214-0 
Harper Audio, narrated by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy both attended college at Sarah Lawrence at the same time, although they were not friends there. Ann tells us that at Sarah Lawrence everyone–students and faculty–knew Lucy as a tremendously talented poet. Everyone also knew Lucy’s story: that childhood cancer had required the removal of much of her jaw, that she had endured years of radiation and chemotherapy, that those treatments were followed by several more years of largely unsuccessful reconstructive surgery.

After graduation, both Ann and Lucy were accepted into the prestigious Iowa writer’s program. When Lucy heard that Ann was going to Iowa early to look for an apartment, she asked Ann to look for an apartment for her as well. She couldn’t afford to make the trip herself, Lucy said. Neither woman could afford more than $200 a month. Ann could not find even one apartment within their price range, let alone two, so she rented a two-bedroom duplex for $375 a month for them to share.

At the end of the summer Ann arrived to find the floors of the duplex smelling of cleaning solution. Then Lucy, who had washed the floors three days earlier, entered and leaped into Ann’s arms:

I do not remember our love unfolding, that we got to know one another and in time became friends. I only remember that she came through the door and it was there, huge and permanent and first. I felt I had been chosen by Lucy and I was thrilled. I was twenty-one years old and very strong. She had a habit of pitching herself into my arms like a softball without any notice. She liked to be carried. 

(p. 7)

That was the beginning of a friendship that would last for 17 years, until Lucy died of an accidental overdose of heroin in 2002 at the age of 39.

During those 17 years both women worked toward publication, literary awards, grants, and fellowships. Lucy’s struggles seem especially desperate as Ann describes Lucy’s frequent need for reassurance that she was a good writer and that she was loved. Ann thought that Lucy had finally found her voice as a writer with the publication of Lucy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face in 1994. But as Lucy began to make promotional appearances for the book, it quickly became evident that her audiences were interested in her as a cancer survivor, not as a writer. Although she always tried to steer discussions toward her writing, audiences insisted on asking for details of her cancer story. 

When I reviewed Autobiography of a Face in 1998 (before Lucy’s death), I found the book quite disturbing–not for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say. As well written as the book is, it leaves out a lot about the experiences it deals with. I can understand why readers always asked Lucy for more details: They’re looking for hope and for answers from someone who survived the disease. Yet those are the very areas that the book does not deal with. Ignoring such huge and salient chunks of one’s personal experience is not what the phrase “a writer finding her voice” means to me.

Ann Patchett admits that it wasn’t always easy being a friend to the very emotionally needy Lucy Grealy, who frequently turned to alcohol, sex, and drugs to ease her pain. But there was always that huge and permanent love, which transcended all else. At the end of Truth and Beauty Ann says that Lucy still haunts her dreams. Ann’s memoir is a tribute both to Lucy and to the meaning of friendship and love.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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