Yes, I liked it. Very much. I just want to say that first. The book is Patchett’s remembrance of her 19-year friendship with Lucy Grealy, and if you were interested in this book when you heard about it on NPR, you should probably go ahead and get it. Grealy’s date with George Stephanopoulos is gratifying to read about, even all these years later, and there’s some other good dish. For all of us still poking through the ashes of the Algonquin table and Paris circa 1945, it’s a pleasure to get literary gossip that’s less than ten years old.
Mostly, though, the book is enjoyable for charting how Patchett and Grealy came of age as writers: The blank years at Iowa Writers Workshop (the two shared a house together); the bad but oddly consuming waitressing job (Patchett’s); the missed deadlines (Grealy’s); the missed-out-on grants and fellowships and multitude of rejections (both). It’s all there, and tremendously reassuring to read about.
The book is even better as a document of artistic foment between friends. When they lived together in Iowa, Grealy was writing poetry, Patchett, fiction. On scraps of paper around the house, in midnight conversations, ideas, images, phrases percolated between them:
We shared our ideas like sweaters, with easy exchange and lack of ownership. We gave over excess words, a single beautiful sentence that had to be cut but perhaps the other would like to have. As two reasonably intelligent and very serious young writers in a reasonably serious writing program, we didn’t so much discuss our work as volley ideas back and forth until neither of us was sure who belonged to what. Not that it mattered. Since we didn’t share a genre, we could both find plenty of space inside the same idea. Lucy was always scrawling notes for poems on paper towels in the kitchen. I found a napkin by the phone that said “The Path to the Spiders’ Nest” in her own spidery handwriting. “I love this.” I held the napkin up when she came home. “I want this one.”
It’s as satisfactory as the scenes of Jo writing — remember those? — in Little Women, except this time around it’s not just Jo inkstained in the garret.
Here’s the thing, though: This is a good book but it’s not a great book. And I’ve been trying to figure out why (this is where the taking apart the alarm clock comes in). And I think I found the answer in an essay Patchett wrote for Powell’s Bookstore about how she came to write a memoir after years of fiction. (I am sorely simplifying the essay, which you really should read.)
In it, she says, “[I]n fiction, my personal life was off limits. I liked the fact that no one would ever finish one of my novels and know anything more about me than they did before they started.”
And oddly, I think much the same could be said of Truth & Beauty: A Friendship. And the end of it we know that Ann Patchett loved Lucy Grealy very much. And we know Lucy Grealy. But we still do not know really know Ann Patchett. And for the symmetry of the book to hold, we should.
It’s a strange phenomenon: A memoir written by someone who dislikes self exposure.
An example: Here is Patchett describing the dissolution of her first marriage, which happened when she was 25: “Things didn’t get much worse after we got married. I simply lost my ability to bear it, which in truth was never so good in the first place.” In all, this boyfriend and husband earns about ten sentences, from relationship’s start to end — about the same treatment even a casual partner of Grealy’s might get.
But, you argue, the book isn’t about Patchett’s life, it’s about her friendship with Lucy. Yet even there Patchett can be oblique. Near the end of the memoir, when she is caring for Grealy in the hospital, Lucy says, “At least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted.” Patchett tells her that’s a terrible thing to say. Lucy says, “It’s true.”
And that’s it. The moment just sits there, the issue is never raised again by Patchett, as the author, to examine. Because, I believe, she is constitutionally opposed to holding the mirror up to herself.
It may seem funny but the book might have been better if it were written by an asshole. First, as we all know, assholes love to talk about themselves. And second, an asshole wouldn’t care so much about the feelings of the friends and family depicted in the book. The cameos of people in this book are not as sharp as Patchett is capable of, they are how you would describe your friends if you knew your friends were going to read your book.
In Experience, Martin Amis writes: “T.S. Eliot suggested that literature was an ‘impersonal’ use of words. The great critic and utopian Northrop Frye* improved on this, I think, when he said that literature was a “disinterested use of words: you needed to have nothing riding on the outcome.”
I would say Patchett had too much riding on this one to make a great book.
* Sadly, no relation. To me. I don’t know if he is related to Martin Amis. They might have dated.