Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty

Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2004)

truth.jpgI probably wouldn’t have read this if not for the exigencies of travel. Because we both find reading books on screen unsatisfying (though the Emerging Artist can read what she calls junk), we’ve done the old fashioned thing on this trip – taken books we both wanted to read. When the EA was browsing in in a fabulous London bookshop and spotted two Ann Patchett books she hadn’t been able to find at home, they were more or less automatically added to me To Be Read list. This is the first.

It’s a memoir about Patchett’s friendship with writer Lucy Grealy. Lucy had a rare form of cancer when she was very young, and had her jaw surgically removed. A good bit of her life from then on was dominated by seemingly endless rounds of reconstructive surgery, most of it experimental and none of it completely successful. Apart from anything else, Truth and Beauty is a persuasive recommendation of Lucy’s 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which is definitely now high on my To Be Read list. Truth and Beauty is in fact much more than that: it’s the story of an intimate friendship between women; of a relationship between writers (Ann and Lucy met at the Iowa Writers’ workshop, and their careers – as a poet and a fiction writer respectively – progressed in close parallel); of a brilliant woman living with tremendous gusto, and at the same time battling the sense of unlovability and ugliness internalised from the social response to her appearance; of women friends rallying around someone crisis; and a lot more. It’s rich, passionate, intimate – especially so through the inclusion of a number of Lucy’s letters to Ann, which enable us to hear her own unmediated voice.

Lucy’s sister Suellen Grealy wrote an article for the Guardian excoriating the book soon after it was published – in 2004, two years after Lucy’s death from an accidental heroin overdose. At this distance, it’s clear that the real subject of the article is the way the family’s grief is complicated and in some ways intensified by their sister’s public profile – in a painful echo of the way Lucy herself had to deal all her life with people who felt they knew her, first because of her appearance and later for her creative achievements.

Especially in the book’s last quarter, as Lucy’s life is clearly heading for tragedy, I was reminded of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, not in any of its particulars, but in the way both books capture something about women caring for each other in crisis.

3 responses to “Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty

  1. It’s a tricky ethical issue, isn’t it, writing about someone else’s pain and making it public property?

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  2. Fascinating – you’ve led me on an hour or so of reading – Lucy’s sister’s essay as well and something from Hanif Kureishi as well. Of course our memories of the same family events/personalities are different – of course we see from our own perspective. Which is why I love speaking with my little brother (by 15 months my junior) we know the same things – but in the sharing I learn from him – not so much trauma in his life growing up – there are clearly moments/times I have buried deeply what he watched unfolding. I am not interested in disputing – but – as I said – in learning. I have bought the 1994 Lucy Grealy essay/memoir – and will keep in mind her sister’s moving essay from a decade or so later! Thanks for the links!

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  3. I read this back in 2005, so remember basically nothing about it but its subject and that, like you, I found it fascinating. The ethical issue is, though, problematic isn’t it? And, wuss that I am, I don’t have an answer. On one had, I think the things we learn from stories like this are important, but I wouldn’t like to be the family facing the exposure of my story.

    BTW I much prefer paper books too, but when I travel the desire not to carry stuff wins out over that preference. But, as it turns out, I find such little time to read when we travel that I don’t have to suffer too much!

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