Books That Built Us: ‘Truth and Beauty’ by Ann Patchett

Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 9:29pm

A bookish girl from a techy town, I stopped reading sometime in the early 2010s. It started when the Borders Bookstore in downtown Palo Alto was replaced by a Blue Bottle and ended when I (incorrectly) concluded that I was destined to go to medical school. This future dermatologist had no time for books, let alone fiction.

Unlike the techy tadpoles I’d swum with in high school, Ann Arbor introduced a new cast of characters that said: “Reading is cool!” I remembered that I didn’t disagree. I started to test the waters with the whole “fiction” thing again, but soon realized that watching an episode of “Buffy” before bed was so much easier than reading a chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest.

In May of 2016, I picked up Ann Patchett’s “Truth and Beauty: A Friendship” and proceeded to quickly and irreversibly fall back in love with reading. A meditation on writing, on friendship and on what writing can do to a friendship, Patchett’s first work of non-fiction is gut-wrenching and beautiful, even beautifully gut-wrenching. This book forced me to face a secret that I hid so well, I’d forgotten it myself: That, above all else, I wanted to be a Writer with a capital “W.”

“Truth and Beauty” follows the decades-long friendship between Patchett and Lucy Grealy, an accomplished poet and writer of “Autobiography of a Face.” The duo met at Sarah Lawrence, their alma mater, and roomed together in the following years at the prestigious Iowa’s Writers Workshop. In writing and in life, they understood each other perhaps only the way writers could. And, while the book delineates the rocky progression of their respective careers, it’s clear that love of the craft serves merely as the meet-cute of their story: Patchett’s insightful and hilarious prose on Lucy, her character and her radiance, reads more like a love letter than anything else.

Art has a way of finding us when we’re most susceptible. As such, I read Patchett’s glorious ode to female friendship when I was at the tail end of mourning a gruesome friend break-up of my own. Needless to say, it hit close to home.

I first discovered “Truth and Beauty” reading Patchett’s published collection of essays titled, “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” The title seeped with sarcasm and promised anything but a romantic fairytale. May relationships crash and burn, I say, as President of the Infamously Single Club. What I got, however, was a series of insightful essays on her career, the individuals that shaped her career (including Lucy) and — my favorite — a piece on her tumultuous relationship with writing itself. To paraphrase: She describes that wonderful idea, the kind that dawns on you at three o’clock in the morning, as a butterfly — free, colorful, alive. The author feeds and nurtures it in her imagination as it flutters above. But, just as the author puts pen to paper to write that damn great idea down, she inadvertently sticks a pin right in the belly of the beautiful butterfly, immortalizing the ephemeral creature in a glass box. That murder, Patchett writes, is just like the task of writing. Brutal, unforgiving, but hopefully still beautiful.

Ann Patchett stuck a needle through the heart of the butterfly that told the story of her friendship with Lucy, and it must have really hurt. Lucy lost her jaw to cancer at age nine, an operation that left her with a facial disfigurement that shaped the course of her life. In a life-long search for unfound identity and untapped happiness, Lucy leaned on Ann for the sweet affirmations that stick female friendships together like honey. (Maybe male friends do this too, but on this, I cannot comment. The lack of information that men seem to share with each other continues to baffle.) “Tell me I’m pretty?” Lucy would ask Ann. She told her, and told her everything was going to be fine. But the beauty that Ann saw in her best friend was lost somewhere in the exchange of compliments, never really reaching its destination. For how often do we see the vibrancy and resilience in our female confidants who can’t internalize it themselves?

Following the Workshop, Lucy and Ann wrote letters to each other, some of which Ann includes in “Truth and Beauty.” In their practice of sharing writing — one I now understand to be incredibly intimate — Ann sees Lucy’s train wreck coming, even from the other side of the world. Waging a continuous battle with herself, Lucy soon found her career and personal life joining the armed troops. In one letter, a teardrop stains the paper where Lucy writes to Ann, her depression deepening and loneliness encroaching. Ann, one helpless half of the love affair, could say nothing to remedy.

In the narrative of Ann and Lucy’s love story, I was able to delineate elements of my own. We — my Lucy and I ­­— met in high school and became best friends the way young girls can. We knew everything there was to know about each other — what the other had for breakfast, what homework awaited that afternoon, what she’d texted that boy yesterday. One night, we cried about something now insignificant while sitting on our respective beds, 3.62 miles away from each other, phones to our ears. Still, we were together. Ours was the kind of friendship we believed that, as much as anyone can believe anything, would last. We would be at each other’s weddings, our kids would get married, our husbands would die before us and we would finally be able to live together in our old age. And then life got in the way.

I read “Truth and Beauty” when it had been almost eight months since my Lucy and I had last spoken. I’d finished my sophomore year of college, found new friends, often skipped breakfast and texted new boys. I suspected that she did, too. In Ann Patchett’s detailed, loving and painful recollection of her friendship with Lucy, I relived my own affair all over again.

I inhaled “Truth and Beauty” in a single day. Then I read it again, and thought about how beautiful my long-lost friend is.