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Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett, 2004.

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An unforgettable memoir of Patchett’s friendship with writer Lucy Grealy. Of course it’s beautifully-written, as one would expect from the author of Bel Canto, and of course it’s sad, since Grealy died young and suffered physically and emotionally all her life. It’s also an honest, funny, evocative, involving story that is impossible to put down, whose central character is neither Ann nor Lucy but the friendship itself.

Patchett uses the metaphor of the ant and the grasshopper throughout the book; she the ant, valuing stability and middle-class values, Grealy the improvident grasshopper, cavalier about money and obligations.

And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music and interesting side trips. What the story didn’t tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard, fed him on his tenderest store of grass all winter.

Patchett brilliantly shows the evolution of this friendship, where each found in the other something she craved, and the contrast between their characters.

Twelve years of Catholic school had taught me that I would be held accountable not only for what I did, but for everything I considered doing. Twelve years of beating cancer had taught Lucy that she was invincible and that nothing, none of it, was ever going to catch up with her.

Truth & Beauty brings the charming, exasperating Grealy fully back to life; her bottomless loneliness and neediness, her enormous charisma and endearing quirks (like her love of being carried), her zest and zaniness, all make her an unforgettable character. Most of us have probably known someone like her in tone if not in volume. She was the author of Autobiography of a Face, which I read a long time ago and don’t remember much about except that it was good; it’s about her disfiguring bout with cancer as a child that resulted in loss of much of her jaw. Patchett heart-breakingly chronicles Grealy’s many failed surgeries in the quest for a mouth that would work properly.

Patchett herself seems like a rarer find–her unstinting generosity to her friend (primarily emotional, but financial too) is remarkable. She’s creative about it; Grealy avoids her mail by tossing it all in a Hefty bag, and Patchett finally convinces her to ship it to Nashville so that Patchett can deal with it for her. Not long before she dies, Grealy says: “But at least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted.” Patchett responds, “That’s a terrible thing to say,” but it crystallized for me something I’d been feeling through the book; Patchett is such a good friend, such a tower of strength and patience, that I can’t help realizing how in the same situation I would probably fall short of the standard she sets. But by way of explanation, she says early on:

I decided that night I would take all the hours of my life that could so easily be spent worrying and instead I would try to help her. I had been raised by Catholic nuns who told us in no uncertain terms that work was the path to God, and that while it was a fine thing to feel loyalty and devotion in your heart, it would be much better for everyone involved if you could find the physical manifestations of your good thoughts and see them put into action. The world is saved through deeds, not prayer, because what is prayer but a kind of worry? I decided then that my love for Lucy would have to manifest in deeds.

A philosophy to live by, no matter what your belief system. It’s a very thought-provoking book, full of beautifully expressed insights and anecdotes small and large, and I copied down a dozen passages I’m tempted to quote.

Ultimately the ant couldn’t save the grasshopper, who felt the ant life was a stifling one. In the last section, Grealy’s early death starts to feel inevitable. We join Patchett in her grief. After reading Bel Canto (in which dozens of people with no common language rely on a translator), this passage was especially meaningful:

Even when Lucy was devastated or difficult, she was the person I knew best in the world, the person I was the most comfortable with. Whenever I saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately well in another language, and then she showed up speaking English and suddenly I could speak with all the complexity and nuance that I hadn’t even realized was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker.

It’s also a fascinating window into the literary writing world, including the round of writing colonies and fellowships. One of the best books I’ve read this year!

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