July 21, 2008

a totally different story

In her own memoir, Lucy Grealy's voice is so much more lucid than it is in Ann Patchett's account of their friendship. Her overall presence is quieter. Saner. In Truth and Beauty, Grealy is so often a huge spaz - a larger-than-life personality, at times nearly unbearably (though I can't say unjustifiably) self-centered and demanding of her friends' attention and their constant validation of her talent.

On many occasions, Patchett's book provides details that Grealy "spared" (Patchett's word) the reader (or edited out, because her aim was to produce art, not a documentary), and initially I regretted reading Truth before reading Autobiography. I almost lamented finding Patchett's book first. Shouldn't I have begun with Grealy's account - what's closer to the truth than what comes from the horse's mouth? But now that I've finished both, I honestly don't think it matters. Grealy may or may not have been the most unreliable narrator ever, and Patchett may or may not have painted Lucy differently than she saw herself. It doesn't matter. They are not halves of a single story.

In Truth, Patchett portrays herself as the amenable, ever-dependable ant to Grealy's impetuous, wildly irresponsible but more appealing grasshopper; in Truth, Grealy's voice is steady and rational, even in its humor, even when describing moments of despair and high anxiety. Patchett's Lucy is crazy fun, sometimes annoying, always insecure; Grealy's Lucy is insecure but compos mentis, hopeful, philosophical, finding and holding fast to small, meaningful revelations.

The fact that Grealy does not once mention Patchett or the slew of other friends who care for her with such love and devotion in Truth is understandable but still weird. It was of course an account of her suffering and desire for inner peace and outer acceptance in the context of her cancer and subsequent disfigurement, but Patchett's entire book is a testament to their closeness, their love for each other and Lucy's dependency on Ann. This seemingly huge aspect of Lucy Grealy's life is completely absent from her book. In her review, the Seattle Times' Melinda Bargreen writes that "their brilliant friendship ... was the most vital thing in their lives." I think for Patchett it was. For Grealy, her quest for a positive and stable identity, actually, seems to have been all-consuming.

Of course, the two books were not written as supplements to each other. They were written under completely different circumstances and for completely different purposes. But I can't imagine reading one without the other. After reading Truth, I wanted to hear Lucy Grealy tell her own story, in her own voice. Which is what Autobiography is. It is beautiful, funny and sad, a must-read ... but I still felt it was lacking somehow. And I realized what I had been expecting was to read Ann Patchett's story from Grealy's point of view. It's a totally different story.

So yes, I should have read Autobiography of a Face before reading Truth and Beauty. But they are two amazing stories, in any order. Ann Patchett suggests reading Lucy Grealy's twice, and then again so you can appreciate the beauty of her sentences. I shall.

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