When my book club chose Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with fellow writer, Lucy Grealy, I had mixed feelings. I read the book when it first came out in 2004 and had read Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face, a number of years before that. I remember that I found Patchett’s book interesting but also disturbing but the exact reasons why had faded from my memory. A few months ago, I thought I might fake my way through the evening by reading Amazon reviews but then, because my sister and I were hosting the book club for June, we both felt compelled to revisit the book, albeit a bit grudgingly.
As before, the book went down easily; I finished re-reading it in less than two days. It’s a compelling story of a twenty-year friendship and the challenges of the writing life. Ann and Lucy attended the same undergraduate institution but did not become friends until they both moved to Iowa City and became roommates while attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It’s a telling detail that Ann knew exactly who Lucy was in college, but Lucy had no idea who Ann was. Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the Iowa City years, partly because it brought up a lot of memories of my own graduate school experiences in Iowa City in the early 90’s, and partly because their friendship seems more balanced at that point. They revel in the grad school life—the mix of poverty and creativity with long stretches of free time to read and write (and occasionally teach sections of freshman rhetoric).
Lucy was clearly a character—the kind of vibrant personality who drew people into her orbit easily. Her early experiences with cancer and subsequent facial reconstructive surgeries left her incredibly strong in some ways and incredibly needy and insecure in others. This doesn’t make her unlikeable, but rather quite human. However, what grated on me even more this time are the rigid roles that Patchett creates for herself and Lucy—Ann is the hardworking ant while Lucy is the creative grasshopper, Lucy is delicate and frail while Ann is made of hardier peasant stock, Lucy is the rebel who scorns middle class morality while Ann represents that morality, etc. I became more aware this time that Patchett controls the narrative here and though at times she is brutally honest about the dynamics of their relationship, it feels like she never truly dives deep into her own motivations or fully reflects on the toxic side to their friendship.
Here’s a telling interaction near the end of the book, when Lucy is coming out of yet another surgery:
“You’re such a good friend,” she said dreamily. “What did I ever do to deserve a friend like you?”
“You’re a good friend to me, too.”
“On no I’m not. Not like you.” She sighed, watching me. “But at least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you always wanted.”
I stopped and looked at her, washcloth suspended. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”
Lucy shrugged barely, as much as she could move her shoulders. “It’s true.”
I wanted to walk away from her, go down to the commissary and drink a cup of coffee alone. I wanted to tell her that she could wait for the nurse to wash her face. “I’m not doing this for points,” I said. “I’m doing this because I want to help you.” I hadn’t wanted to come. I would rather have been back in my own house, at my own desk working, but in her fog of morphine Lucy seemed to miss it all. She just smiled at me.
“My pet,” she said.
To me, it seemed that filled with morphine or no, Lucy saw their relationship much more clearly in all its combination of toxicity and romance.
Is this memoir worth reading? Yes, definitely. It’s great book club fare—with lots to chew on and argue over.
However, I definitely will not, under any circumstances, read it a third time.