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Truth and Beauty : A Friendship

by Ann Patchett

 

Today’s column is a Memory Maker book review. Memory Maker books are those that are not recent publications, but which come to mind frequently, as good books will.

What would you do for a good friend? We all want to support our friends when they face trouble in life, but how much help is enough? How much is too much? Or, can we ever help too much? This is the perplexing question in the book Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett.

Patchett, an award winning novelist and Guggenheim Fellow, has written several novels, two of which, Run and Bel Canto, I read as a part of a book club. These two novels by Patchett did not immediately grab my imagination, but I gained a greater appreciation for her work after each book club discussion of them. Therein lies one outstanding benefit of book clubs — a reader can come to a completely new understanding of a book after listening to the input of other readers. Having had a slow start with Patchett’s other books, I was expecting the same experience with Truth and Beauty, but this was not the case at all. This book, a nonfiction semi-memoir, was a riveting story from the beginning.

In Truth and Beauty, published in 2004 by Harper Collins, Patchett recounts her long, deep friendship with Lucy Grealy. The two graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and became close friends while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After their time at the Writers’ Workshop they honed their “day job” skills at various occupations and passionately pursued careers as writers, all the while remaining close and committed friends.

There was a great personality contrast between the two women. Ann’s childhood was relatively peaceful compared to Lucy’s. Ann was raised by her divorced mother in a stable and predictable environment, and had grown into a dependable, industrious, creative young woman who was not much of a risk taker. Lucy, at age nine, was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. As a result, she had a portion of her jaw removed which disfigured her face. Lucy’s life from that point forward was one of separation from her family, long hospitals stays, cancer treatments, and multiple failed surgeries. Although she was never free from the torment that her facial disfigurement brought her, Lucy was a highly charismatic, popular, extroverted thrill seeker. How Ann and Lucy’s friendship began and thrived, and then became ever more complicated, confusing, and challenging as they both became well known writers made for very absorbing reading.

Patchett is not the main character in the book, but is the window through whom we see Lucy, a physically and emotionally injured person who attempts to deal with various levels of personal and professional triumphs as well as many catastrophic events. As a writer, Lucy Grealy had a highly successful memoir called Autobiography of a Face. In her book, Lucy writes: “I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I’ve spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”

Ann and Lucy spent great stretches of time together, including sharing an apartment for a while. When they were not together they kept up a steady stream of letters to each other. Their correspondence, which is featured in the book, is filled with tales of relationships, literature, art, manuscript rejections, surgeries, waitressing, and writing. At one point in Truth and Beauty, Patchett  was at her mother’s home reading correspondence from Lucy, sorting through them to throw some away. Patchett’s mother advised Ann to save all of Lucy’s letters. ”Someday you’ll both be famous writers,” she said.”And these letters will be very important to you.” Ann followed her mother’s good advice, and we see the fulfillment of her mother’s prophecy as Patchett skillfully uses the letters as the framework for Truth and Beauty.

I was intrigued by the book’s title, but came to the conclusion that Truth and Beauty was not chosen with a nod to Aquinas’s theological development of the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness. The only reference to any theology that I came upon while reading the book was Patchett’s high school interpretation of‘ salvation:

“I had been raised by Catholic nuns who told us in no uncertain terms that work was the path to God, and that while it was a fine thing to feel loyalty and devotion in your heart, it would be much better for everyone involved if you could find the physical manifestations of your good thoughts and see them put into action. The world is saved through deeds, not prayer, because what is prayer but a type of worry? I decided then that my love for Lucy would have to manifest in deeds.”

This “works will save you and others” thinking may have kept Patchett on a more positive pathway in her adult years, and very clearly guided her enduring love for, and care of, Lucy.

Ann and Lucy plainly loved each other, and often had a hilariously great time being together, as you can read from this excerpt of a day spent riding horses while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop:

“The day we rode our horses was one of those [beautiful] days. Lucy was out front, taking us fast through the trees while we whooped and laughed and pretended our lives were free and full of possibility. She was a beautiful rider, no bigger than a lark perched high up on a horse’s back. Whatever she did, we followed her. She was like Willie Shoemaker, but lovely, all blonde hair and sunlight. If you really stopped and thought about it, it would have been impossible to understand how someone so tiny managed to dominate something so huge, to dominate not only the horse she was riding but the two that were following behind her as well. But when you saw it in action, there was no question that such things happened. In those woods in Iowa, Lucy ruled the horses. Lucy the ruled the world.”

But Lucy’s ability to love others, and herself, was as misshapen as her disfigured face, and as un-repairable. Slowly but surely, Lucy slipped into the world of drug dependency, brought on initially by the pain meds for her many surgeries, and over time, Lucy’s demands on Ann and her other friends grew too great for any of them to meet. They all loved her — Ann especially loved her. Ann practiced what the nuns at her high school taught her — she showed her love to Lucy in deeds, giving her time, money, a home, and her heart in trying to save Lucy, but it wasn’t enough. Lucy died of an overdose of heroin on December 18, 2002.

An article in The Guardian in 2014 featured a headline that read, “One in ten (in the UK) do not have a close friend, and even more feel unloved, survey finds.” One in ten people do not have a close friend! Lucy and Ann did have a friendship — a deep, abiding friendship, lasting 20 years. This certainly is the theme of the book as the title declares: Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. For those who do have friends, the love between them encompasses sharing joys and painful miseries, failures, and hilarious successes; but for some, it’s also about sharing friendship’s terrible losses.

***

Of the more than 25 years that I have been involved in book clubs, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, is among the top five books that drew very strong emotional reactions during the discussion. It was hard to talk about the book without judging the characters involved, and the discussion could easily have devolved into an evening of laying blame and expressions of massive disapproval. Our conversation did derail at times, but by the end of the evening we knew that even though Lucy’s life looked like an utter failure to us, God had been continuously present in it. Reality, with all of its scars and wretchedness had visited our little club through Truth and Beauty; but the gift of grace and love had also visited, and had taught us much about friendship. “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” Romans 11:33