Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (Fourth Estate 2002)
The logical book to read after Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty would have been Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. But travellers can’t always be choosers, and Bel Canto was in our luggage.
I knew nothing about the book except the little Ann Patchett said about it in Truth and Beauty, namely that it was her breakthrough book. I hadn’t even read the back cover blurb. If you plan to read it, I recommend that you do likewise. I’ll try to give as little way as possible in this blog post.
As the book opens, a world famous opera singer has just finished singing and, members of the audience believe, her accompanist has risen to kiss her, when all the lights in the room, including candles, are extinguished. The performance is in the home of the vice president of a small unnamed Latin American country, part of a birthday dinner for a Japanese businessman, a prospective investor in the country. The sudden darkness is caused by a group of guerrillas who are there to kidnap the country’s president. A hostage situation ensues.
If, like me, you come to this narrative with a real siege in mind – like the one in Martin Place where two hostages were killed – you may find the subtly comic tone uncomfortable. Luckily, some way into reading the book I watched the first Die Hard movie on TV, and this turned out to be a much better context for my reading experience. Set against Bruce Willis’s heroics and Alan Rickman’s urbane, ruthless villainy, there’s something wonderful about Patchett’s focus on the unheroic, unvillainous, and mostly un-urbane relationships within the besieged building. It’s not exactly a humanised case of multiple Stockholm Syndrome, nor is it a benign reimagining of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, but it has elements of both those, as well as a meditation on the role of art, a multi-dimensional love story, a political tragedy and many other things.
It completely won me over.
Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2004)
I 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.