Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett

Memoirs have made up a good part of my reading list over the last few years while I struggled to shape my own story. The quality has varied widely, but even the duds raise questions that interest me, such as why the author selected these scenes and ordered them in this way. Sometimes even the poorly constructed ones have a few scenes that bring a particular time and place to life, scenes that stay with me. For example, I recently read M.F.K. Fischer’s Among Friends which I found tedious for the most part. Rather than a sustained narrative, it appeared to be a random collection of anecdotes such as those intended for the sake of children or grandchildren, i.e., people who care more about the writer than the story. However, there were several lovely and memorable scenes, such as one from a childhood summer at the shore where she swims out to a rock to collect mussels for dinner.

I picked up this memoir about Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy, having read nothing by either woman, but intrerested by the inside flap’s promise that “Patchett shines light on the little explored (sic) world of women’s friendships”. However, the scene describing the start of their friendship left me uneasy and skeptical. Although the two had attended Sarah Lawrence at the same time, Lucy didn’t know Ann while Ann knew Lucy only as a campus “celebrity”. Yet Lucy’s first action when they meet at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is to throw herself on Ann, wrapping her arms around Ann’s neck and her legs around Ann’s waist, weeping copiously with joy that Ann has arrived.

There is a lot more weeping throughout the book as Lucy—who is also presented as outgoing and popular, with hordes of friends—continues to cling to Ann, demanding that Ann constantly acknowledge that she loves Lucy best, better than any other girlfriend, better than any boyfriend or husband. On one occasion, when the two are lunching with Ann’s new friend Elizabeth, Lucy pulls this stunt, sitting on Ann’s lap, demanding to be told Ann loves her best, eating off of Ann’s plate. Ann writes, “I was a little embarrassed, but only because I was afraid that Elizabeth might not understand Lucy, or understand me for letting her get away with it.” At that point, a third of the way through the book, I did not understand either.

I found this book deeply disturbing and not in any way representative of women’s friendships as I know them. True, the writing is beautiful and powerful. True, Lucy faced severe and uncommon trials. But, if this account is accurate (a disclaimer that must always be made about a memoir), the “friendship” between these two women was a classic addict/enabler relationship. Lucy was addicted not just to the heroin that eventually killed her but to being the center of attention always, attention that Ann and Lucy’s other friends lavished on her, along with money, food, clothes, apartments, etc. “She liked to be carried,” Ann writes.

From this account, I could see where Lucy’s incandescent personality (when she wasn’t crying) could be fun to be around. For a few minutes. However, it wouldn’t be long before I would be running like crazy in the other direction. There are some people who can never get enough attention; their neediness is like a bottomless pit inside them (as a friend of mine described it). Expecting someone to devote themselves to the Sisyphean task of trying to fill that pit goes beyond the bounds of friendship, in my opinion.

If I can get over the creepiness of the story, I will go back and try to analyze the writing itself to understand how Patchett achieves such remarkable power in her prose. And I will keep looking for a good memoir about women’s friendship.

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