I have mixed feelings after just completing Ann Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a poet/memoirist/essayist who died at 39 from what appeared to be a drug overdose: Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. Grealy was diagnosed at age nine with a rare form of cancer that is often fatal. It caused the doctors to remove her jawbone. During her remaining years, she went through 38 surgeries. Various doctors attempted to restore her jaw and implant lower teeth (which she didn’t have) so she could chew properly. As it was, she was limited to eating only very soft food.
On the one hand, Patchett does a great job of resurrecting Grealy in this book, an attempt, I’m sure, to keep her friend close by, even though she was dead. Patchett had saved most of Grealy’s letters over the years, and she intersperses them throughout the narrative, giving readers a flavor of Grealy’s thinking and writing. Patchett also captures the intensity of their friendship—they really seemed more like sisters than good friends—from the time they became roommates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
In spite of being disfigured from her many surgeries, Grealy seems to have had considerable charisma and loved being among people and partying. She was a flamboyant social animal who lusted after men, sex, and life. Patchett appears to have been more subdued and grounded, offering stability to her friend that she didn’t have herself. It appears Patchett even was something of a mother figure, especially in the sections where she describes carrying the 100 lb Grealy from taxi to apartment after her various hospitalizations.
While I’m impressed with Grealy’s heroic response to her terrible fate and with Patchett’s apparent commitment to her friend, I also am interested in the writing life that’s captured here. Both had residencies at prestigious places, such as the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. They shared their struggles for recognition and success, each achieving fame in her own way, and they were a central part of the NY literary scene. So it’s a book well suited to other writers.
However, Patchett’s memoir makes it sound as if Grealy’s friends were her only family, and we rarely hear any mention of her actual family’s response to her. As a result, Patchett comes across as equally heroic as Grealy in her devotion to her friend. But I wanted to know more about how Grealy’s situation impacted Pachett emotionally, but there’s very little self-reflection here. I also am puzzled by the title Truth and Beauty, both very abstract words that tend to idealize this relationship and seem far from the nitty gritty reality of it.
There seems something cancerous at the core of this friendship Patchett describes that hasn’t quite been diagnosed or resolved, neither by the book nor by Patchett herself.