July 16, 2008

on love, in sadness

I read the end of Truth and Beauty sitting up in bed, alternating pages of the book with glossy pages of O Magazine. I needed something to regularly pull me out of the graphic downward spiral of Lucy Grealy's death - Ann Patchett's great loss - and there seemed nothing better to bring me back to the surface than recipes for barbecue sauce and tutorials on how to wear last season's skirts.

Even in its sadness, it's a beautiful, wonderful, hilarious book. Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician's Assistant, and Taft, writes of "the first half" of her life in this book, and of a friendship that at some points seemed capable of swallowing it. Patchett's relationship with the late poet Lucy Grealy was uniquely rewarding and totally exhausting, even to read about, and I closed the book thinking, half-intrigued and half-horrified, What if I'm called one day to be Ann to someone's Lucy? Ronald Reagan said of the Challenger crew, "They had that special grace, that special spirit that says, Give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy." Could I meet such a challenge with the joy and all-encompassing generosity of Ann Patchett's spirit?

To compare Lucy in the depths of her depression to an exploding space shuttle is not exactly fair - she was not only a burden, she was a dynamic, generous friend herself, who possessed great wit and endless talent - but the comparison is not terribly off the mark. Like the Challenger, Lucy Grealy carried myriad hopes and dreams - her own, and others' - and like the crew of the ill-fated shuttle, she did what she could to make them come true. For Lucy, however, so many things in her life were out of her control, and the one thing she could control, her attitude, she could not make to rise above her circumstances. In the end, her explosion left hundreds of people reeling.

I devoured every page of Truth and Beauty until I got to the advent of the heroin addiction that eventually killed Lucy Grealy. From the beginning, it was an immediately profound, eccentric friendship between two writers, who aside from their craft had little in common. Patchett: ant. Grealy: grasshopper. The proverbial wind beneath Grealy's wings, Patchett put up with and even loved no shortage of her friend's antics and personality quirks. She fiercely protected her from the cruelty of people whose only way of dealing with Grealy's facial disfiguration (Ewing's sarcoma in her childhood had left her with without part of her lower jaw) was to mock it. It was a love deeper than most loves you read about. Deep enough to lift one high above the everyday joys of life; deep enough to sink one lower than rock bottom. Or so it seemed to me. Though Patchett resents Grealy's accusation that her desire to be saintlike is the source of her devotion, it seems that Patchett is no less than a saint. She does not want to be recognized as such - her voice in the book is straightforward and sincere, and that much is obvious, but page after page, you're left wondering if you could survive not only what Grealy lived through, but what she puts Patchett through.

Somewhere around Lucy's 36th surgery, things fall badly apart. The miniseries of operations that carried the promise to change her life for good, it turns out, will not. No stranger to depression, she falls into a much deeper abyss and eventually can't find her way out. Not with the love of Ann, the help of therapists, the devotion of countless other friends. She finds her solace, and eventually her demise, in heroin.

I went back almost immediately to the barbecue sauce and skirts, because Ann Patchett's pain radiates from the ending and I can't sleep with such emotion rattling around in me. Now, having had some time to think on the book and flip back through the middle and end again, I see part of my anxiety in reading it had to do with my own path as a writer and my path as a generally happy person; my assumption that once you've sold the book, once you've found deep happiness in a trade or a relationship or anything else you've always wanted, that you can't be pushed off the pedestal. Depending on your story, however, you may be extremely pushable. You may even jump. And the devotion of wonderful friends can't stop you. Only you can stop you. But Lucy Grealy, a gifted (and published) writer, surrounded her whole life by people who loved her, couldn't stop herself.

Now, finally, I can read Autobiography of a Face.

Side note: In her profound insecurity, one of Lucy Grealy's favorite questions to ask Ann Patchett (sometimes on a daily basis) was: "Do you love me?" I dreamed last night that I asked S. this question.

- Do you love me?

- Yes, I love you. I adore you so much that I can't believe Ken Gary said such a thing about you.

- Ken Gary? What did Ken Gary say about me?

- He said he can't believe I'm marrying such a dispassionate bibliophile who owns too many shoes.

- Did you punch him in the face?

- Well, he had a point about the shoes, babe.

No comments:

Site Meter