Sometimes I borrow a book from a library, or order it on amazon, and much time passes before I actually attend to reading the book. Usually my reason for acquiring the book is fairly obvious, but in the case of Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty the reason was ambigious. I think I recall hearing a talk between Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett, and deciding to embark on Patchett through her memoir rather than her fiction – Bel Canto should have been the obvious first choice. But my interest in memoir, which has always been a great love, is now almost academic research for my own book of personal essays.
Truth & Beauty sat propped up against one wall or another for the longest time. I liked the eggshell blue of the cover, and the speckled egg in a box with the words ‘a friendship’ carved into it. Finally, knowing I really ought to return the book to the library, I took it with me to hospital the morning of my appointment with an oral surgeon. Waiting to be seen, I began. Ann is being driven by her sister from scorching Tennessee to Iowa to attend the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She had already been once to Iowa City to scout out a rental for her, and her friend Lucy Grealy. I had some dim assumption that this would be a book about two young writers, and their summer in Iowa. And then, the arrival of Lucy Grealy on page 2.
‘everyone knew Lucy and everyone knew her story: she had had a Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of nine, had lived through five years of the most brutal radiation and chemotherapy, and then undergone a series of reconstructive surgeries that were largely unsuccessful. The drama of her life, combined with her reputation for being the smartest student in all of her classes, made her the campus mascot, the favourite pet in her dirty jeans and oversized 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. From a distance you would have thought she had lost something, money or keys, and that she was vigilantly searching the ground trying to find it.’
Yeah. Exactly. I don’t think it is possible to imagine a creation like Lucy Grealy. She was real and unreal even to those who knew her, let alone this reader finding her fourteen years after her death. I was gripped. And not least because after my own minor surgery, major trauma took hold of me. The loss of my tooth suddenly connected me to other losses, other griefs and I clung to Ann and Lucy for the next twenty-four hours which is all it took to finish the book. I slept in between, and woke to read the last chapters. In between, I also ate and watched every interview Lucy gave. Three are available online.
Lucy was an award winning poet and the author of a memoir called Autobiography of a Face, which I shall read, although I feel I may need to be stronger when I do. 38 reconstructive surgeries in 39 years. Lucy died at the same age as my other writer-comrade in the illness battles, Flannery O’Connor. I am not being prescient about my own death, I promise you, but it is all a little close to the bone. To the jaw, to the teeth.
Lucy’s preoccupation with beauty as a prerequisite to being loved is an excruciating repetition throughout her life. You never think ‘poor Lucy’ because she was too fiercely intelligent for that. You just bear witness to a life, a vivid hungry life of a beautiful mind, which is just as Ann Patchett intended us to.