Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 7 of 24 books in 28 days: truth & beauty

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing :: February 15, 2010

Truthandbeauty

In Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, novelist Ann Patchett writes about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a friendship that lasted from their meeting in 1985 at the Iowa Writers Workshop (although both were undergraduates at Sarah Lawrence, they were not friends there) until Grealy's death (ruled an accidental overdose) in 2002.  More about Lucy Grealy in book 8 of 24.

This is the last of the "loss" memoirs I'm reading this month, and this one is the most narratively straightforward.  Patchett has said that she wrote the book in bed, when she could do nothing else during the three weeks following Grealy's death.  The book begins with Patchett's arrival in Iowa and ends with Lucy's death.  There are few digressions for side memories or the kind of analysis of self or other that seems to be more possible after more time for reflection passes between memoir events and memoir writing.

The narrative has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the friendship was complicated.  Patchett explains how she and Grealy "did" friendship with the recurring metaphor of the grasshopper (Grealy) and the ant (Ann).  The paperback cover colorful beauty of the grasshopper and the small ant at the bottom of the design.  Early in the book Patchett sums up their relationship this way:

We were a pairing out of an Aesop's fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare.  And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely  more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music and interesting side trips.  What the story didn't tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard, fed him on his tenderest store of grass all winter.  The tortoise, being uninterested in such things, gave over his medal to the hare.  Grasshoppers and hares find the ants and tortoises.  They need us to survive, but we need them as well.  They were the ones who brought the truth and beauty to the party, which Lucy could tell you as she recited her Keats over breakfast, was better than food any day.

Late in the book, when Patchett is living in Nashville and Grealy in New York, Patchett writes,

Sometimes I worried that Lucy saw me as the ant I was, unglamorous, toiling.  Sometimes I knew she did.  Sometimes I aspired to be a grasshopper myself, to live in the city and go to parties, to have bright conversations with famous people instead of washing my grandmother's hair and making her grilled cheese sandwiches.  I liked to think there was a moment in my life when I could have been a grasshopper and never thought of winter at all, but now I had a house and it wasn't even a particularly charming house with loads of character that needed fixing up.  It was practical, snug, and suburban.

Patchett mentions her ant-ness throughout the book.  She writes her novels steadily, sticking to deadlines, even writing a book before she arrives at the fellowship where she planned to write it.  Grasshopper Grealy misses deadlines and loses contracts, focusing, out of habit and necessity, on the moment rather than the future.

Because Patchett never judges Grealy in this book, and because I am much more ant than grasshopper myself, when I read the following scene that takes place after the removal of the breathing tube after one of Grealy's many surgeries, I cringe for Patchett, all the while knowing I would do much the same.

    It was over and almost immediately Lucy was feeling better.  I got her some ice chips and washed her face.  She was tired and thirsty and sticky with the leftover adhesive of removed tape.   

    "You're such a good friend," she said dreamily.  "What did I ever do to deserve a friend like you?"

    "You're a good friend to me, too."

    "Oh no I'm not.  Not like you." She sighed, watching me.  "But at least I can make you feel like a saint.  That's what you've always wanted."

    I stopped and looked at her, washcloth suspended.  "That's a terrible thing to say."

    Lucy shrugged barely, as much as she could move her shoulders. "It's true."

    I wanted to walk away from her, go down tho the commissary and drink a cup of coffee alone.  I wanted to tell her that she could wait for the nurse to wash her face.  "I"m not doing this for points," I said.  "I'm doing this because I want to help you."   I hadn't wanted to come.  I would rather have been back in my own house, at my own desk working, but in her fog of morphine Lucy seemed to miss it all.  She just smiled at me.

    "My pet," she said.

And as much as I might want Patchett to stand up in any way, I know she can't and won't, and I know I wouldn't have either.

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing