Books #23 and #24: Truth and Beauty and Autobiography of a Face

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I put these two books together and decided to write about them at the same time because they’re like best friend books. Truth and Beauty was written by Ann Patchett about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, the author of Autobiography of a Face. Diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma at nine, Lucy Grealy spent two years undergoing weekly chemotherapy and radiation.  Most of her jaw was removed, leaving her face disfigured. She lacked half of her jawbone, which caused her face to appear sunken-in on one side. She was left with irradiated bone surrounding her remaining jaw that would not allow for grafts or transplants to re-create a jawbone. After undergoing one major surgery after another, her replacement jaw would look great for a year or so, then slowly dissolve into her face, leaving it looking like it did before the surgery.

As for Grealy’s book, Autobiography of a Face, I really loved entering the world of a fearless little girl faced with so much to be afraid of. Her story was honest, painful, and real. Although she never really seemed to understand what her own experience with cancer would mean for the rest of her life, she had no choice but to face it–and to live with the memories and scars that it provided. Autobiography is a story of self-identification and self-awareness at its heart. As Lucy familiarizes herself with her own illness and her own face, she struggles to find her place in the world. It’s when she’s in college at Sarah Lawrence that she first feels comfortable in her own skin and comes to know and own her face.

It’s when Lucy starts grad school in Iowa that she meets Ann Patchett. They both went to Sarah Lawrence, and Ann remembers Lucy, but purely for the fact of her renowned oddly shaped face. When the two arrive in Iowa, they become fast friends. More than that–according to Truth and Beauty, they become inextricably linked to one another.

Here is where the differences in the two books come to light. To hear Lucy tell the story of her life, she had things pretty well sorted out. She found a way to live with her face, to embrace the way that she looked. However, after undergoing what at the time was thought to be a final series of operations, Autobiography abruptly ends. Of course, Lucy’s story wasn’t over. Where Grealy tends to describe her world as insular and controlled, Patchett sheds another light entirely on Lucy’s personality and circumstances.

To hear Ann Patchett tell it, Lucy is unstable. She’s needy, controlling, and more than a little unpredictable and wild. It’s clear that Patchett loves Lucy dearly, but their love for each other borders on codependency. At one point in Truth and Beauty, Ann has moved to Kentucky to live with her boyfriend, Lucy calls regularly to insist that Ann proclaim to love Lucy the best. They were tied to each other in a way that was not always sensible or healthy. When Lucy demands such affections from Ann in Truth and Beauty, there is no explanation offered. Ann does not demand the same of Lucy, in fact, she seems relieved when Lucy turns her affections to others. I was left wondering what Ann gained from moments like that–moments when Lucy demanded her friendship and she gave it, without asking questions or expressing concern for her friend’s constant need for support. Patchett’s lack of empathy toward Lucy’s behavior left me with a sour taste in my mouth; it was as if she felt obligated to stand by her without feeling any desire to do so. While I realize this may not have been the case, Truth and Beauty felt oddly exploitative. It was published shortly after Lucy’s death and was met with direct criticism from Lucy’s family who claimed that Ann did not allow them to grieve her loss personally and privately. They felt that Patchett’s story of Lucy’s life told the negative, the downtrodden side of Lucy–and Lucy through only one lens–rather than the whole picture. I can’t say I disagree.

To cut to the chase, here is where I land on these two books: I’d recommend Autobiography of a Face. Truth and Beauty, however, left me feeling unsettled. I felt like Ann Patchett exploited her own feelings about Lucy in a way that was self-serving and confessional–but only confessed Lucy’s faults, not her own. The memoir left me wondering where Ann fit into the story–there was so little of her opinion, her feelings, that it felt dishonest. She painted Lucy in rather harsh light while leaving herself oddly neutral.

18. Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

19. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

20. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

21. Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

22. The Commitment by Dan Savage

23. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

24. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

5 thoughts on “Books #23 and #24: Truth and Beauty and Autobiography of a Face

  1. Excellent discourse.
    Ironically my own life statement is that “I am tirelessly, even on fire with, the search for Truth and Beauty. However, they may temporarily elude me. I am dedicated to the endlessly wild ride, the dance with the Divine, knowing I will come up with my cup overflowing . “

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