I read Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett. Patchett is the novelist that wrote, Bel Canto, a book club favorite a few years ago. This book is a non-fiction memoir of Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, a poet-turned-memoirist semi-famous (I say because I had never heard of her before) for writing about childhood cancer, horrific treatment processes, facial disfigurement and a lifetime of reconstructive surgeries.
Patchett wrote a compelling story here. This 20 year friendship ended with Grealy’s death in 2002.
Patchett and Grealy were college acquaintances that became close friends in graduate school. Grealy’s jaw was all but disintegrated by radiation and chemo therapy when she was around 10. Besides the feeling of being “ugly”, Grealy had trouble with several basic physical tasks. She couldn’t close her mouth all the way, so she couldn’t effectively swallow. As such, she had a very hard time eating. The surgeries (nearly 40 by the end of her life) were mainly reconstructive grafts – sometimes bone, sometimes soft tissue.
Patchett does a great job of expressing some of Lucy’s realities. For example, I would have thought that someone with a physical disfigurement would be very physically modest. Lucy was the opposite. Patchett attributed it to spending so much time in the hospital, being examined by so many doctors. At the same time, Lucy always felt that her life wasn’t really going to “begin” until she was finally finished with surgeries and looked “normal”.
One of the surgeries was a breast augmentation. I would have thought someone that required so much surgery wouldn’t elect for anything unless absolutely necessary. But the fact that cancer (or its treatment), stopped her growth (at age 10 or so) it was important to Lucy to rectify it. I spent the first half of this book learning a lot about illness and the aftermath. My heart went out to this girl-poet and I was rooting for her.
At some point in the second half of the book, it hit me. I didn’t really like Lucy all that much. She was so emotionally needy. She manipulated Ann, particularly when Ann was in a relationship with a man. In fact, Lucy was continually competing for attention and affection. On one hand, I could understand why. She spent so much time alone. On the other, she had plenty of friends. What she wanted – demanded – was to be loved best. It was just not fair. By the time Lucy started using drugs, Ann was distancing herself somewhat.
Funny thing – when I started the book, I figured the cancer was coming back and that would ultimately take Lucy’s life. Suicide was never out of the question. The drug overdose was not a surprise to anyone.
One of the comments on the cover was that if this book made some of us read Grealy’s memoir, it would be a great thing. Hm. I am not running out to buy it. But I suppose if I stumble upon it at a Book Sale…