Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

I have known of Ann Patchett for pretty much her entire career as she and I both are native Nashvillians. She now owns the independent bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books. In fact, I was there two years ago when she was given the WNBA Award. But I never read one of her books. Until now.

Naturally, given my penchant for memoirs, I started with hers instead of one of her many novels. Ann went to the University of Iowa for her MFA (wow, best program in the country if not the world.) So did Lucy Grealy. They'd gone to college together but didn't know each other then. Ann knew who Lucy was though. Everyone did. When Lucy was a child, she had cancer, which left her with almost no jaw left, so she had a distinctive face. Ann and Lucy became roommates and best friends, and stayed best friends for the next twenty years.

Typically, opposites attract. Ann is steady, methodical, responsible. Lucy is wild, emotional, passionate. Even after graduate school, the talk and write nearly every day. Lucy has a series of surgeries (which never really stopped since she was a pre-teen) to try to fix her jaw, including taking her tibia and having skin grafts and other soft tissue and bone grafts. For a while, those surgeries kept her trapped in Scotland (a UK native, she could get free surgeries there) where she was a prolific letter writer. Meanwhile, aside from a young marriage and quick divorce, Ann, the novelist, is cautious, she writes her designated number of pages every day, and she moves home to Nashville to waitress, because that is the smart move financially. Lucy, a poet, has a series of terrible relationships, gets deep in debt, and moves to New York because it's exciting. She writes when her deadline is on top of her (or past.)

Eventually, they both find success. Ann, with her fourth novel, and Lucy with an essay in a magazine that leads to a memoir. But Lucy is always chasing love. The adulation of fans is great for a while, until it dissipates and she just can't write her contracted-for novel. But her great need for love doesn't fade with her fame. Her constant chase for something new, something better, for a fix for her face, leads her down a bad path. Ann tries to help her, but she can't save her.

The writing is stunning. Lucy's letters in particular have lines of pure brilliance. Ann's talent lies in making us feel empathy and understanding towards a woman who seems like the neediest, most hysterical bipolar person I could ever hope to meet. And yet through Ann's eyes, I see the beauty in Lucy, the excitement, the challenge, the hope in being her friend. I admire Ann for standing by her for all those years, while admitting that I'm not sure if I would have. Ann seems to be a woman of infinite patience. And Lucy was lucky to have had her as a friend. And she was lucky to have had Lucy.

I have no idea where I got this book, but I at one point owned two copies. I've owned it for years.


Kay said...

I've read two of Ann Patchett's books, Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant. Enjoyed both of them very much. I'm putting this one on my list just because of the way you described it. I'd have to be in the mood, but it sounds wonderful. Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Have you read Lucy Grealy's book, Autobiography of a Face? Have you listened to any of Ms. Grealy's interviews? She was not the "hysterical, bipolar" woman that her "friend" Ann Patchett portrayed her to be.

How would you feel if your friends cashed in on your death by writing a memoir that holds you accountable for being unable to "overcome" both your disadvantages and the abusive people who succeed in using those disadvantages against you? Do you like it when other people speak for you? Lucy Grealy is not alive to dispute Ann Patchett's account of their relationship. She, like the rest of us, felt angry and helpless when people supplanted their version of her story with her own.

Blaming Lucy Grealy for what appears to be her professional failures, her unwillingness to follow through with long term goals, and her extreme dependence on other people is both cruel and without foundation in fact. Do you think you could manage to live a safe, healthy, and productive life if you lived in a world that let you know, in no uncertain terms, that being "the greatest" writer is your only hope of compensating for your "repulsive" face? That misconception seems to have been what prevented Ms. Grealy from continuing to write. Similarly, Lucy's "constant chase for something new" was caused by always having to rebound from one unfair rejection after another. Maintaining a steady trajectory of progress in one's life can't be accomplished singlehandedly for anybody, and certainly not for anybody who lives with a disability. And finally, Ms. Grealy's intolerance for solitude and her lack of competence in meeting her basic needs can be attributed to the limitations imposed upon her by her various health conditions and to a low appraisal of her own self-worth that society had painstakingly instilled within her for three quarters of her life. Had Lucy been afforded access to home health care and a way to grow comfortable with her own company (see the Lizzie Velasquez story), she could have successfully presented herself to the world as an "independent" adult and her private life would have stayed private.

If Ann Patchett felt dissatisfied by the relationship she had with Lucy Grealy, then she should have simply ended it. She was not a blood relative, a spouse, or an employee. She could have bailed whenever she wanted. It's obvious now why she chose to stay. Like many writers, she exploits the privacy and intimacy of personal relationships for professional advancement. Had she admitted that "Truth and Beauty" was a "revenge memoir", I'd have less of a problem with what she did. The book would still be ableist propaganda, but the readers would have been less likely to trust Ann's account of Lucy's personality, behavior, or choices if they knew that she stuck by her because she was gathering material for a book. I'm sure that once day, there will be a book written about Lucy Grealy that repairs the damage that Ann Patchett's book has caused to her reputation and to her legacy as an artist. Until then, the people whose lives have been enriched by Ms. Grealy's work will continue to treasure her genius and extraordinary spirit.