Truth and Beauty, By Ann Patchett, HarperCollins, 257 pp., $23.95
Ann Patchett's new "Truth and Beauty," her first work of nonfiction and her first book since her 2001 novel "Bel Canto" became an award-winning smash, chronicles her extraordinary friendship with poet Lucy Grealy. It was a friendship that began in college and lasted more than two decades, cut short by Grealy's untimely death two years ago. Grealy, best known for her devastating, critically acclaimed memoir of living with the ravages of childhood cancer, "Autobiography of a Face" (1994), was a luminous literary figure who ultimately lapsed into depression and drug addiction, dying of what was ruled an accidental overdose. For Patchett, "writing about Lucy was a way to stay with her a bit longer after her death."
Through anecdotes, letters, and recollections, Patchett unfurls the poignant portrait of a relationship that took root as the two were forging their careers. In the process, "Truth and Beauty" offers an illuminating glimpse at the creative process and the lonely, often compulsive life of the committed writer.
Patchett and Grealy met in 1981 at Sarah Lawrence College, but it wasn't until later, when the two ended up at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, that a true connection was made, fueled by a shared passion for literature. As Patchett describes it, the bond was immediate, powerful, and irrevocable: "I felt I had been chosen by Lucy and I was thrilled."
But for Patchett, it was not an undemanding friendship. Grealy was already a bit of a celebrity virtually everywhere she went. She was preceded by the drama of her life -- Ewing's sarcoma at the age of 9 had necessitated years of brutal chemotherapy and largely unsuccessful facial reconstructions that left her disfigured. However, she was also charmingly direct, often exuberantly outgoing, and had the reputation for being the smartest student in all her classes. She quickly became the "campus mascot, the favorite pet in her dirty jeans and oversize Irish sweaters. She kept her head tipped down so that her long dark blond hair fell over her face to hide the fact that part of her lower jaw was missing. . . . Her face was always changing, swollen after a surgery or sinking in on itself after a surgery had failed."
Over the next 20 years, Patchett helped see Grealy through more operations and recoveries. (Grealy would endure nearly 40 operations during her lifetime.) The quest for a normal face was a defining pursuit for Grealy. However, despite the frequent grim medical details, "Truth and Beauty" is mostly not about the poet's medical travails but about the commitment, fortitude, and love Grealy's condition and her personality evoked in Patchett. Their relationship became a constant thread that helped keep each woman focused and inspired: "Our friendship was like our writing in some ways. It was the only thing that was interesting about our otherwise very dull lives."
For Patchett, Grealy was not only a loving friend but a catalyst and inspiration for her own work. Patchett admired Grealy's passion, her go-for-broke attitude. She recalls a night, lying feverish and exhausted on the couch, coming across a television program featuring Allan Garganus, her most influential teacher in college. "I felt like I was having a visitation from the Angel of Fiction. I decided then and there that I would be like Lucy. . . . I vowed that I would write my way into another life. I, too, would try for everything."
Though "Truth and Beauty" has great narrative holes (there are a lot of missing chunks of time and space regarding both women's lives), it has a compelling, diary-like immediacy. Patchett writes with disarming intimacy about the details of their entwined lives, from students to adults, through boyfriends and book parties to long sojourns in hospital rooms and dark nights of despair. She has a great flair for description that beautifully captures time, place, and mood, such as her recollection of a particularly grim day visiting Grealy in Scotland, where she was awaiting yet another surgery: "Sad looking women pushed their baby carriages through the crowds, the carriages covered in clear plastic sheeting that turned every pram into a little oxygen tent. . . . Men in kilts trudged down the street in one joyless parade after another. I have never seen so much rain or so many parades."
Sometimes the writing style is slightly over-romanticized, especially Patchett's unabashedly loving descriptions of her friend. However, most of "Truth and Beauty" is searingly direct. With wisdom, wit, and grace, Patchett recalls and honors an exceptional life.