Thursday, October 20, 2005

Book review: Truth and Beauty

I just finished reading Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the poet and memoirist who had cancer as a child and who's chemo melted her jaw and disfigured her face. It's pretty great, for the most part. The writing is beautiful and the "characters" and relationships are portrayed well. What I wasn't too thrilled about is the end.

If you have no idea who Lucy Grealy was, here's a major spoiler: she's dead. And she died with heroin in her body. Given that, you can imagine what the last few chapters are like--addict promises to quit, friend is happy but not sure how to help, addict relapses.

The decline feels so inevitable that it's almost cliche. But the rest of the book has by this time been so full of life--the joy of friendships, the randomness of conversation, the thrill of two emerging careers--that you are left overall with a feeling of richness, of having known two people.

This is ironic because a) Patchett makes clear that memoirs are creations (especially memoirs by poets and novelists), and b) one of the themes of the book has to do with fame, from the local fame on a college campus to television and bookstore appearances. Basically, she points out that it's very easy to feel like you know someone because you've heard about their life (or read their memoir) but it's such an unbalanced relationship between writer and reader that any real-life encounters tend to ring false.

Ann Patchett wrote one of my favorite recent novels, Bel Canto, and has her own website here. One connection I hadn't made was that her mother wrote the book Julie and Romeo; I think I briefly heard Terry Gross talking to someone about how she encouraged her mother to write a book and was slightly chagrined that her mother's book outsold her by a lot. I may be misremembering the details, but clearly it was Ann Patchett.

One of the weird, gossip-y pleasures of Truth and Beauty involves the encounters with other writers at various retreats or jobs (Elizabeth McCracken, Alan Gurganus) or Ann hearing Lucy on Fresh Air described as "repulsive"--it ties together a weird network of minorly famous intelligensia.

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