I was inspired to pick up Ann Patchett’s memoir Truth and Beauty: A Friendship after reading her essay These Precious Days, which was recently published in Harper’s magazine. The two works run in parallel, both telling the stories of Patchett’s friendship with someone whose life is arguably more interesting (and certainly more dramatic), who is sick, and who Patchett helps through that illness.
Truth and Beauty follows the friendship between Patchett and the writer Lucy Grealy for nearly twenty years. They attend the same college but don’t know each other well until they both end up attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the mid-1980s. The memoir documents their various personal and career challenges (I particularly enjoyed the stretches where Patchett works as a waitress at a Nashville TGIFridays) and triumphs.
Patchett and Grealy in some ways make an unlikely pair, which Patchett discusses through the fable of the ant and the grasshopper – she is the hardworking, early-to-bed, slightly dull ant, whereas Grealy is the exciting and impulsive grasshopper. Grealy had suffered cancer as a child, and lasting after-effects of the treatments left her with permanent damage to her jaw, which she had multiple surgeries to try to correct. Patchett often helps to care for Grealy following these surgeries, as well as supporting her through relationship break-ups and career challenges.
I really enjoyed the book as a portrait of two flawed people sticking together through a long relationship (which I think we as a culture generally don’t value as much in friendship as we do in marriage or family relationships, but we should), and of the ways the we can be drawn to and learn from friends who are very different from ourselves. Occasionally Patchett does perhaps make herself seem a bit too saintly, but what do I know, maybe she’s a saint. She certainly does seem like a very good friend, something that we should all aspire to be.