Fans of Lucy Grealy take note: Ann Patchett’s new memoir, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, offers insight into the meaning of friendship as she shares the story of her relationship with her fellow author.
Patchett, author of four novels, examines her friendship with Grealy, best know for her successful memoir, Autobiography of a Face, about her childhood experiences with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that claims much of her jaw and defines her life thereafter. The two first meet at Sarah Lawrence College, but have only a passing acquaintance. Lucy, at college, is out of reach for Ann, who writes, “While Lucy had discovered that she was different from all the other children in her grade school because she was sick and was different from all the other children on the hospital’s cancer ward because she continued to survive, I had discovered I was so much like every other little girl in the world that it always took me a minute to identify my own face in our class photo. Still, I thought, in my shyness, my blurriness, it would not be so unreasonable to think that the famous Lucy Grealy and I could be friends. But when I waved to her in passing or said hello in the cafeteria, she would look at me blankly for a minute and then turn away as if we had never met.”
When the two enter the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the same year, they share an apartment and their unwavering friendship begins literally the moment they meet again. They have a shared history at Sarah Lawrence, even though they were not friends there, as well as shared insecurities and ambitions for writing. Grealy’s personality is electric, and Patchett notes how no one could help but be drawn to her.
Patchett describes herself and Grealy using the fable of the ant and the grasshopper: Patchett is the ant, hard working, dutiful, while Grealy is the grasshopper, having fun with little concern for tomorrow, and dependent on the ant to take her in when winter arrives. They approach their lives in this way, with Patchett putting regular effort into her writing, and Grealy always pulling off a last-minute coup to complete a work. This symbiosis works well for the pair, who have formed a sort of automatic understanding of how their friendship will play out.
Both women struggle to become acclaimed writers, applying for grants and fellowships to keep themselves going. Patchett chronicles their difficulties and doubts by using excerpts of letters from Lucy and conversations they had by phone and in person. The author sheds new light on Grealy the woman. While Autobiography of a Face was a brave, unflinching look at Grealy’s life and many health issues, Patchett probes deeper, revealing the deepest fears and foibles, as only an observer can.
The quality of their friendship over 20 years is remarkable, showing all of us that true friendship can survive through the most difficult times. Occasionally, Patchett’s devotion to Grealy is difficult to understand; Grealy is so very needy of love, so full of doubts about her appearance. Patchett is able, however, to paint a very human portrait of Grealy who, despite her insecurities, is a dynamic, loving, extraordinarily talented woman who has suffered greatly, but who loves greatly too. Truth & Beauty is a wonderful, reflective work that tells the story of girlfriends at their very best and worst.