Friday, October 19, 2007

Review: Truth & Beauty

A few weeks ago, surrounded by blankets and spent Kleenex, I read Autobiography of a Face.

This is the famed MEA break weekend--the one in which teachers and students leap about in joy with two extra days tacked on to the weekend. We are supposed to be conferencing in the Twin Cities, picking up samples and looking at teaching manuals, but really, most of us are taking advantage: be it hiking up north (my principal), catching up on graduate work (my dear Emily), or reading & traveling (me!), we are most certainly not thinking about teaching or school or anything of the sort.

We are surrounded with blankets and reading books like candy. This is my intent.

I finished Truth and Beauty in nearly one sitting--not because it was an incredible page turner but because I was that hungry to read. I have the memory of gnat on a good day, so I decided reading this shortly after the Grealy book would be wise; I might forget the voice of the autobiography, the story that didn't have a triumphant ending.

Not this version of the tale, anyway. I mentioned before that Lucy Grealy was a poet who, at the age of nine, had a third of her jaw removed due to cancer and chemotherapy took much else--development, her teeth, etc. She met Ann Patchett in college; Patchett's memoir is a story of their friendship. (I must mention right now that I loved her novel Bel Canto and have saved her other books to insert into really awful reading sprees... sometimes I pick up the worst books on a whim.)

This book was fine, written much better than Grealy's book, though it's not fair to compare them. They were telling very different stories, and Patchett clearly is more comfortable and confident in the prose voice. Theirs was a shocking friendship, one in which the dynamic was off kilter, sometimes uncomfortably so. Grealy was needy and Patchett would give in to that need. And I wanted to love Grealy more when I read Patchett's book, but I wasn't entirely convinced that I would love her, not through this book's lens.

Of course, she wrote the book in the short years after her best friend's death. I could not imagine facing such a traumatic event in this way when it felt so immediate.

All in all, a fine book. If you are to read anything by Patchett, I would go with her novels, but this book can certainly fit a need for certain people facing certain kinds of grief. Or friendship. After I read it, I sat down and wrote a letter to my best friend, missing her.

The website blurb:

"The author of Bel Canto -- winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize and long-running New York Times bestseller -- turns to nonfiction in a moving chronicle of her decades-long friendship with the critically acclaimed and recently deceased author, Lucy Grealy.

What happens when the person who is your family is someone you aren't bound to by blood? What happens when that person is not your lover, but your best friend? In her frank and startlingly intimate first work of nonfiction, Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett shines light on the little-explored world of women's friendships and shows us what it means to stand together.

Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and after enrolling in the Iowa Writer's Workshop began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In her critically acclaimed memoir, Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy wrote about the first half of her life. In Truth & Beauty, the story isn't Lucy's life or Ann's life but the parts of their lives they shared together. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans 20 years, from the long cold winters of the Midwest to surgical wards to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined.

This is a tender, brutal book about loving the person we cannot save. It is about loyalty and about being lifted up by the sheer effervescence of someone who knew how to live life to the fullest."

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