Female friendships are one of the most complex human relationships, regardless of age. And in TRUTH & BEAUTY, author Ann Patchett does nothing to dispel the mystery of girlfriends. If anything, she adds to it.
Although this book is nonfiction, it reads like fiction. Readers will dive into the story, greedily gathering information about the two main subjects --- Patchett and her friend, Lucy Grealy --- like characters in a novel. They were two young and ambitious women who go directly from Sarah Lawrence to the Iowa's Writers Workshop, the most coveted graduate school for writers. They develop a friendship that straddles the lines of intimacy, and they find literary fame. Along the way they form a bond that is difficult to describe. It spans continents, weathers illnesses both physical and mental, and seems to survive even death. But this is not a work of fiction, and so the eloquent writing of this well-known author packs even more of a punch. These are real people; this is Patchett's life, her beloved friend who lives, metaphorically speaking, just beyond her reach.
Patchett recreates her life with Grealy by interspersing their history with letters she received from Grealy over the years, postmarked from Scotland, New York, Providence, Connecticut, and all of the other places she traveled, taught and lived. They are letters that reveal a literary voice filled with love and admiration for a woman to whom she referred as "Pet." She was a competitive woman who was known to jump into Patchett's lap and ask repeatedly, "Am I your favorite? Do you love me the most?" And inevitably the answer was yes.
"Dearest Anvil, she would write to me six years later, dearest deposed president of some now defunct but lovingly remembered country, dearest to me, I can find no suitable words of affection for you, words that will contain the whole of your wonderfulness to me. You will have to make due with being my favorite bagel, my favorite blue awning above some great little café where the coffee is strong but milky and had real texture to it."
Narrated by Patchett, TRUTH & BEAUTY could be described as an analysis of Grealy, a woman who fights an uphill battle to recover physically from a cancer that robbed her of her outward beauty as a child, though it amplified an inner beauty. Grealy, as Patchett tells us, had a kind of animal magnetism that drew the best of people to her. She underwent at least 35 surgeries to rebuild a jaw decimated by radiation and lived her life subsisting on mashed fruits, ice cream and the occasional milkshake. Despite the staggering number of surgeries, the procedures never quite worked and much of Grealy's life was spent lamenting what she believed were her physical inadequacies. Yet TRUTH & BEAUTY is not a sad story. In fact, it features the gifts of Grealy's best features: her wit, gaiety and zest for life.
And while it focuses on Grealy and Patchett's friendship, TRUTH & BEAUTY may be better described as a study of human nature. Patchett writes about the intricacies of the human heart in THE MAGICIAN'S ASSISTANT, THE PATRON SAINT OF LIARS and BEL CANTO, and she tackles the subject once again in TRUTH & BEAUTY. The constant search for a love that seems to be right in front of a person's eyes is a recurring theme for Patchett, who weaves a beautiful if not frustrating story of a friendship that she worked diligently to maintain.
In life many people struggle to find reciprocal friendships in men and women. And, frequently, outsiders perceive even the best of friendships to be one-sided. This may also be the case here. Readers will complete TRUTH & BEAUTY with a keen appreciation for the love that exists between women, the unwavering loyalty that friends can maintain through years of turmoil and emotional trials. And while loyalty (as we see in this 257-page story) may falter occasionally, it can withstand the test of time. And perhaps even beyond.
Reviewed by Heather Grimshaw on January 23, 2011