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Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett


Rating: (Recommended)


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Bel Canto author Ann Patchett has written a poignant memoir of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face). Their intertwined lives and deep friendship are revealed with well-written disclosure, and the presentation of the joys and pains of lives and relationships. There’s an abiding sadness on these pages, and a deep, inner strength. If you’ve ever wondered about the complexity of friendship, especially female relationship, Truth and Beauty is a book to read to explore that wonder. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Two, pp. 17-20:


  Our responsibilities at the University of Iowa were to be teachers and writers. While we had taken our writ­ing very seriously through college, neither of us had ever considered the prospect of teaching. I suppose we knew something about it simply by virtue of having been in the room all those years when other people were doing it, but at the time it seemed it would have been more provi­dent to send us into the fields to husk corn as a means of reducing our tuition to in-state rates. We had utterly no idea what we were supposed to do on the other side of the desk. Lucy and I had both received the same level of financial aid our first year, which meant we taught one section of Introduction to Literature three days a week. There was a week-long class before school started to prepare us for our new job, but the only helpful piece of information we were given was the num­ber of the room where we were to show up. Lucy and I went to our empty classrooms, first hers, then mine, sat on the desks, and swung Our legs back and forth. The rooms were scorching hot.

“Is it over a hundred in here?” I asked.

Lucy looked at her shirt, which was already crumpled and damp. “We’re going to have to wear something that doesn’t show sweat.”

Two young girls leaned in the door. They looked like the sorority Sisters who marched up and down the sidewalk in front of our house all day singing rush songs, “I’m a Kappa, we’re a Kappa, here a Kappa, there a Kappa, wouldn’t you like to be a Kappa, too?” High blond ponytails swinging to the Dr Pepper beat.

“Are you going to be in this class?” one of them asked.

We looked at them seriously for a minute and then we both started laughing, the impossible thought that we would have anything to teach these girls drove us into a terrifying state of hysteria.

We would have no supervision, no one to make sure that we weren’t robbing the good children of Iowa blind with our ineptitude. We were told to pick a Shakespeare play, a contemporary play, two novels, five stories, and a dozen or so poems and spread them out over the course of the semester, issuing regular tests and paper assignments. I picked works that I knew well, but Lucy saw teaching as a great chance to further her own education. With the exception of the Shake­speare and the poetry, her syllabus consisted of things she had always meant to read.

The idea was, of course, that she would get around to reading them before she had to teach them, but somehow it never seemed to happen. She scanned the assignment while running to class, pages pressed down beneath her fingers. She figured as long as she managed to stay a few paragraphs ahead of the pack, she’d be all right. She maintained a strict policy that no one was to ask about the end of the book before the end had been assigned. “Alice,” she would say sharply when Alice had ambitiously read too far beyond what was due, “it isn’t fair of you to ruin it for everyone else in the class.”

With or without reading the assignment, Lucy could power through a class on the sheer muscle of her oratory. She could talk. She could talk on the nature of truth and beauty for hours, and after all, what novel or poem or play in an Introduction to Literature class couldn’t benefit from a truth-and-beauty discussion? She would often lie on the desk, half curled up, with her arm pillowing her head. She recited the ending of King Lear aloud, “Howl, howl, howl, howl! 0, you are men of stones: I Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so / That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for I Ever! I know when one is dead and when one lives; / She’s dead as earth.”

Lucy loved Lear. She would have just as soon spent the entire semester on Lear.

“And then I would speak the two most beautiful words in the English language,” she would tell me on the walk home. “Class dismissed.”


I bought The Iliad and Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark [she wrote to me from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe were she held a fellowship years later]. The first is for a class I’m sitting in on, one taught by an absolutely genius professor: he dazzles me. Last week he did “Romeo and Juliet,” which used to be my least favorite play. He changed my mind. He talked about how it’s a play about the arbitrary accidental meetings in the street, arriving or waking up just one moment too late or too soon. From these moments of arbitrary “real” moments are forged by the characters through their own passions, which insist on taking moments in time and conditions of emotion that will eventually pass: anger, grief, and trans­forming them through actions into “forever,” irrevocable conditions, such as through a curse on a family or a person, or by suicide. I still don’t think it’s my favorite play, but I do have new feelings about it. Monday I’ll just have time for class before leaving for NY, he’s doing the first four books of Homer, so I have to start reading. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read any of that stuff, unless you count the one or two abridged pages shoved down my unwilling throat in high school.


My students, bearing up under the weight of my neatly typed syl­labus and ironclad attendance policy, were certainly less enchanted than Lucy’s students, but they always got their papers in on time. 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, hut 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.

Ann and Lucy’s lives intersect and intertwine, and some readers may question the health of the relationship. Nonetheless, through pain, love and devotion endure, for reasons quite unknown. Truth and Beauty is a finely written book that will leave you thinking, and make you sad.

Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: and Beauty.htm


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