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Volume 2, Issue 3
Autumn 2006:

Truth & Beauty (a friendship) by Ann Patchett

Review by: Peter Albertson

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Autumn; 2(3):a8

Harper Collins (2004); 257 pages; ISBN: 0-06-057214-0

Truth & Beauty (a friendship)

Ann Patchett, the author of four excellent and well-received novels (The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician's Assistant, and Bel Canto), has lately chronicled her enduring friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy in her book, Truth & Beauty (a friendship).

Perhaps the eternal verity in our lives is a universal need for the kind of love that only true friendship can evoke, but seldom does. Some couples, married or not, find it. Although not necessarily romantic in nature, this sort of love may harbor an element of romanticism. But it is the totality of this love on which both partners depend.

Patchett's marvelous book exemplifies this kind of love, although Truth & Beauty certainly has tragic dimensions. Despite Lucy Grealy's often unreasonable demands, Patchett was able to commit herself to Grealy, to love her unstintingly. These two women needed each other's love and mutual support. In these pages, Patchett aptly excavates her deepest feelings about Grealy and their shared experiences.

Lucinda Margaret Grealy's life was a horror. Born in Ireland and brought to the United States at the age of four, Grealy developed Ewing's sarcoma of the jaw when she was nine. After chemotherapy and radiation, a surgical treatment removed the tumor, as well as part of her jaw. Until her death at 39, Grealy had repeated courses of chemotherapy and radiation along with 38 more surgeries in an attempt to repair her disfigured face. None was ultimately successful.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Sarah Lawrence College, Lucy Grealy went on to become first a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., and later a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She taught at the New School for Social Research's MFA Creative Writing Program in New York, and at Bennington College in Vermont. A fairly successful poet, Grealy published in such periodicals as The Paris Review and The London Times Literary Supplement. [Her masterpiece, Autobiography of a Face, a prose work, was recently reviewed in Cell2Soul.]

Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy first met at Sarah Lawrence College, but it wasn't until graduate school in Iowa that their acquaintance grew into a deep and 20-year-long loving friendship. Patchett's book is a chronicle of their shared love.

Dearest Axiom of Faith

Dearest Angora

My Darling Pet

Dearest Anvil

Dearest Pet

Pettest of my Pets

Those lines are salutations from some of the many letters Grealy wrote to Patchett during the years of their friendship. Both writers were dependent on that relationship — in Grealy's case, perhaps obsessively and compulsively so. Countless times she would ask Patchett, "Do you love me?" No matter what had happened to trigger the question, often nothing in particular, Patchett's response was always the same: "I love you."

In one instance, Patchett writes, "I was still mad at her, furious with her, but that wasn't the question. The question was did I love her. And I always loved her."

Grealy's constant need for reassurance likely would have suffocated a less strong woman: "As much as Lucy liked my friends, it was important for her to know at every moment that she was my uncontested favorite."

And Grealy wrote: "...please know that you are my most loved hero now and for always."

As part of her need for reassurance, Lucy Grealy embarked on a sexual quest, becoming involved with many men. She fell in love with some; others were essentially one-night stands. But she did not confuse sex with love; rather, she saw sex as a journey toward love, as well as a way to prove her acceptability in spite her disfigurement.

Lucinda Margaret Grealy died of an accidental heroin overdose on December 18, 2002.

Patchett writes that many nights she dreams of Grealy. She shows us that Grealy was no angel, was often impossible, although she never quite puts it in those words. There were times when she lost patience with Grealy and even considered ending their friendship. "But now I know," she writes, "I was simply not cut out for life without her. I am living that life now and would not choose it. If Lucy could not give up the heroin, I could not give up Lucy."

As Patchett cannot give up Grealy, so we ultimately cannot give up either of them — separately or together. This unit, this friendship, this love, holds promise for all of us. In a world beset by horrors — personal as well as societal — perhaps this eternal verity will see us through. Truth & Beauty is a book well worth holding, keeping, and reading again.

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