Review of Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Truth and Beauty
by Ann Patchett
I didn’t know how I felt after finishing Truth and Beauty, and to be honest, I still don’t know. This book made me feel a lot of complex and conflicting feelings. I guess that’s good? But I’m not sure I can articulate everything in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed.
A friend gave this to me as a kind of housewarming present after I tweeted that “I wish we talked more about friendship the way we talk about romance”. I love it when people pick books for me tailored on something they know about me (as opposed to “lol dawg I heard you like books”), and I was excited when I received this. Plus, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto was one of my favourite books of 2012, and re-reading my review makes me just want to read it again. So I embarked on Truth and Beauty, though maybe some of my subsequent discontent is a result of reading it during the busy start of the school year rather than a more meditative, relaxing point in time.
My tweet was commenting on the way that our society generally prioritizes romance above platonic relationships. We have a “friendzone” that precludes romance, and we have to clarify when someone is “just a friend” as opposed to “more than friends”. We have a hierarchy that posits romance (and, generally, monogamous romance) as superior to everyday companionship, sexual or otherwise. I’ve been taught from an early age that friendship is all well and good, but in general, most of the people I get close to in life will probably one day find the “special someone” who then becomes the number 1 person for them. So even when your alloromantic friends are good people, sometimes they can’t help but make you feel more alone.
Anyway, although this book didn’t provide the boost or reaffirmation that I think it was intended to, I definitely see why my friend gave it to me on the strength of that one tweet. In Truth and Beauty, Patchett recounts what is essentially a queerplatonic relationship with Lucy Grealy. Having met and roomed together in college, Ann and Lucy remain friends for life, even when living on different continents. They talk to each other all the time, comment on each other’s love lives and writing ambitions—and talk about Lucy’s health. Lucy’s bout of cancer as a child has left her with facial deformities and a bone structure that doesn’t accept the numerous grafts her surgeons keep trying on her. Unable to eat much and self-conscious of her stand-out appearance, Lucy deals with this situation by adopting the persona of an adventurous, promiscuous, happy-go-lucky waif. Yet Ann is one of the members of her inner circle of friends who see beyond her aura to the spectre of depression that looms constantly over Lucy.
On the one hand, parts of this book could be reassuring when considered separately. Ann and Lucy do remain friends for life, despite often being separated by great distances. This was in a time before Skype, even, so if they could do it, I can do it. The first section, where Patchett intersperses her writing with Lucy’s (roughly contemporaneous) letters, is great. It shows two women striking out into the world of adulthood and trying to negotiate their individual understandings of what this means. I really like the glimpse that Patchett provides into how they talked with each other, what they talked about, and their differing attitudes towards writing, romance, and sex.
On the other hand, the relationship Patchett describes is not a healthy one. Lucy does not seem to give much back in this friendship, unless it’s just that Ann needed to be needed. For example, Patchett recalls how Lucy would, when out with a group, jump into Ann’s lap and ask her if she still loves Lucy the most, a way of centering attention on Lucy and also reaffirming their mutual affection. Patchett presents it as supposedly sweet and adorable behaviour, but it’s manipulative. Lucy is a manipulator, a charmer of doctors and a collector of friends. It’s hard to tell how much of her behaviour is calculated (either consciously or unconsciously), of course, from only Patchett’s obviously biased perspective, and how much just appears manipulative.
Should I be judgmental? Isn’t the point of friendship that it’s this wonderful state of being between two people, and they negotiate its parameters the way they like it, and if Ann wants to be there for Lucy, 100 per cent of the time, no matter what, no matter how little an effort Lucy makes to be there for her or even for herself, isn’t that between them? Yes and no. I think my discomfort comes from how Patchett never really comments much during the book about her feelings about this relationship (though, to be fair, she essentially lowers the boom on herself at the very end). I respect that she refuses to clean up her friendship for the page—yet at the same time, she seems to gloss over the periods of obvious tumult and recession. There’s a flat affect to this book, with Ann going through the motions of her life, waiting for the next “Lucy-sode” to intrude. And that might be part of it, too: Patchett mentions just enough autobiographical details to ground us in the context of events, but we seldom get to see more of her own personal life. What were her other friendships like? Did she have someone she could turn to like Lucy could turn to her? It’s hard to know.
Moreover, I suppose I’m weirded out by Ann and Lucy’s relationship because it is an extreme version of the kind of friendship I could see myself getting into. I take it as a cautionary tale, if you will. I enjoy helping people, and I actively base a lot of my ego on helping people. If you want to get me to do something, the easiest way is just to frame it in such a way that it would seem like I’m really helping you out. I don’t know why I’m like this, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing—but I recognize that my desire to feel helpful can, when carried to extremes, be unhealthy for myself. There are times when you have to say “no” to someone, because to say “yes” would burden you to an unhealthy extent. For whatever reason, I have been lucky enough up until now not to be at the fulcrum of someone’s crisis moment and expected to react swiftly and decisively (and if I go my whole life without such a moment, that would be just fine). So Ann and Lucy’s friendship makes me worry, more than anything.
There is definitely Truth, and there is Beauty, to this memoir. Patchett’s writing occasionally reminds me of that lyrical and incisive author of Bel Canto:
Lucy thought that all she needed was one person, the right person, and all that empty space would be taken away from her. But there was no one in the world who was big enough for that. She believed that if she had a jaw that was like everyone else’s jaw, she would have found that person by now. She was trapped in a roomful of mirrors, and every direction she looked in, she saw herself, her face, her loneliness. She couldn’t see that no one else was perfect either, and that so much of love was the work of it. She had worked on everything else. Love would have to be charmed.
That’s beautiful, and true, I think, and I wish I could have seen more of that in this book. But if Patchett concludes her memoir by describing her mistake, then this, here, is Lucy’s: this obsession, again, with romantic love as the end-all, be-all of human relationships, when she has so many vibrant friendships (it seems) and a particularly good one with Ann.
I guess I knew from the beginning that the book would end with Lucy’s death (though I didn’t know the particulars). And I’m far from opposed to books with downer endings. I like them—when I am in the right mood. Maybe reading this right after When Dimple Met Rishi was a bad call, or maybe I should have saved it for a week off or something.
Maybe it’s just that truth is often less satisfying than fiction; there is no redemption arc here. Maybe my problem is not with the book itself but with the whole form, an my preference for fiction is not merely that of an addict’s sweet-tooth but a preference for the neatness of fictional lives. John and Aeryn fighting the Peacekeepers. Kim and Ron stopping Dr. Drakken. Adama and Roslyn attempting to keep a fractious group of survivors together. These are the stories that move me, while real life, I guess, is just too real sometimes.
(Speaking of Kim Possible, sometimes I just wish life were like a superhero cartoon and I could have a nemesis. This is clearly the most superior form of relationship, beyond friendship, romance, or anything else.)
If the measure of a book’s greatness is entirely based on how much makes one think and feel, then Truth and Beauty is obviously a great book. Yet if we factor in satisfaction, even the type to be found in reading about sadness, then it misses the mark for me by a wide margin.