Monday, September 17, 2012
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Publisher: Harper, 2004
Source: Personal copy
Read for: Alex Awards Challenge, New Adult Challenge
Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy met when they were working on their undergraduate degrees, but they became friends in their master's program, as they ended up rooming together in a cheap apartment due to their shared background. However, what started was an epic friendship, close as family, colored by their writing, their love lives, and Lucy's never-ending battle with her face, which was disfigured as a result of childhood cancer and made every day a struggle to eat, as well as coping with the reactions of other people. This is the story of that friendship, told from Ann's point of view.
I was already a fan of Ann Patchett's writing before I started Truth and Beauty, and it did not disappoint. Ann Patchett has a very readable and yet descriptive style. There is nothing straining about the style itself, although the subject matter is at times very heavy. Her writing is also addictive, meaning that I finished this book in less than 24 hours. Several of those hours transpired during a bout of pregnancy-induced insomnia, in which I probably could have gone back to sleep after an hour but stayed up for three reading.
The story itself is also compelling, for several reasons. First of all, for me at least, it is interesting to learn about the lives of successful writers and how they reached that point. As someone who occasionally toys with writing (although for the most part it all just goes onto this blog or into a personal journal), I was very interested in the day-to-day life details of these two successful writers. Second of all, much of the book takes place during Ann and Lucy's twenties. It has been bemoaned by many other book bloggers that there is a paucity of books taking place in college and about characters in their early to mid twenties, and I agree that it is a problem. Because I am in my mid-twenties now, I loved reading about other people and their experiences, despite the fact that they are different than mine. I think there is a common element of struggling to find one's identity and purpose no matter what the circumstances of one's life, and it is usually illuminating to see what others' experiences are. Finally, the relationship between Ann and Lucy itself is very unique and compelling.
I have to preface this by saying I found Lucy a dynamic and compelling character, one who had dealt with considerably more than most people. Diagnosed with cancer at a young age, she had lost most of her jawbone and teeth and was constantly undergoing reconstructive surgeries. She was unable to eat most food and was constantly stared at by others. In addition, her treatments had left her in a state of permanent debt. As someone who has worked with children who have cancer, it was interesting and heartbreaking to see the aftermath of the disease, when the individual is essentially cured by dealing with the side-effects of those cures for the rest of their life.
However, she was also a very difficult character to read about at times. She made very irresponsible decisions, frequently disregarded her friends' advice, continued to sink further and further into debt, and entered empty relationship after empty relationship with men, constantly seeking reassurance that she could be loved despite her facial abnormalities. Despite this, she was well-loved and popular, but no one cared for her the way Ann did. I loved the way Ann painted her clearly, showing her faults and weaknesses, while at the same time writing with unconditional love. She frequently refers to Lucy as her family, and it is clear that their relationship is one of family -- they helped each other through everything, even when it would have been easier to end the friendship and be around someone less needy or demanding. I think that is the true beauty of this book -- the ability to love someone imperfect, the ability to treat someone with patience and forgive them over and over again, the ability to see past someone's weaknesses to their truest, best self. There are so many heartbreaking images, so many acts of love, in Truth and Beauty.
While Truth and Beauty is not a story about romantic love, it is a love story -- a story about how to love in the purest, most unselfish form. Alternately frustrating, moving, and heartbreaking, this unique friendship spelled out in excellent writing is definitely worth reading.
Warnings: Language, sensuality, graphic descriptions of surgery