- Truth and Beauty
Novelist Ann Patchett's first work of nonfiction, Truth and Beauty, is a candid, startling elegy to her long-time friend Lucy Grealy, author of the critically acclaimed and hugely successful 1994 memoir Autobiography of a Face. Lucy died in 2002 at thirty-nine of an accidental drug overdose.
Ann first became aware of Lucy in college at Sarah Lawrence. Among a "school full of models and actresses and millionaire daughters of industry," Lucy had the "pull [End Page 197] of celebrity"; everyone knew her story. At nine, she was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare cancer with a 5 percent survival rate. She endured five years of radiation and chemotherapy and more than thirty unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries on the jaw she lost to these relentless treatments. "Her jaw was irregular, as if one side had been collapsed by a brutal punch, and her neck was scarred and slightly twisted," Patchett notes. Also gone were most of her teeth. She lived on a steady diet of soft foods and milkshakes. Despite the damage done to her face, Lucy was beautiful—"light eyes with damp dark lashes and a nose whose straightness implied aristocracy"—and she believed she was lucky, one who simply fell into things. For many years during her early writing career, this illusion would seem true.
The ambitious young writers didn't become close friends until 1981, when they were both accepted to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Lucy contacted Ann to ask her to find her an apartment; she was too broke to make the trip from New York to Iowa City. Ann quickly rented "a very ugly green duplex," but they would have to pool their resources to afford it. A friendship bordering on co-dependency that would last another twenty years is captured in Lucy's letters, which Ann's mother wisely told her to keep. The letters reveal a young woman with an unquenchable need for literary success and romantic love. She achieved one goal while the other eluded her—a fact she attributed to the ugliness of her face. Lucy was charismatic, generous and loving, and her talent was accumulating loyal friends, like Ann, who nursed her through reconstructive surgeries, muddled finances, unfinished articles and books, lost teaching jobs, eviction and, in the end, heroin addiction. According to Patchett, her friends' dedication and support couldn't save Lucy, however: "The question of love was a dark hole into which Lucy swam daily. She claimed to be alone, alone, alone, and bringing up legions of friends who adored her was only an irritant. 'It's not the same,' she said pointedly, as if she was being given an apple when she had asked for a pony."
Ann and Lucy's relationship also illustrates the different trajectories of literary careers. Lucy is characterized as the grasshopper to Patchett's ant; her writing career took off when she wrote an article for Harpers about her "cancer, pain, chemotherapy, teasing and longing and shame." The publication won her a National Magazine Award and would later evolve into the book that made her career. Yet for the next eight years she feared she was a one-book wonder. Her second book, a collection of essays, As Seen on TV, received little notice. She cast about for another subject; one day it was a nonfiction piece on tango, the next a novel about family. She wrote neither. Ann, on the other hand, slowly turned out the pages of her early midlist novels that "sank without a trace." She finally achieved overnight success with Bel Canto, her fourth novel. The two women were able to share the literary spotlight and worked hard at being happy for each other.
As a last act of friendship, Patchett reminds us to read Lucy's best-selling [End Page 198] book, which ten years ago led to appearances on the Today Show, Oprah, CNN and Fresh Air. When she read from her book, Lucy barely tolerated the cancer survivors in the audience who would try to one-up her account of suffering or give their...