This memoir is about the friendship between two woman writers, the novelist Ann Patchett and the poet/memoirist Lucy Grealy. I randomly picked this up from my neighborhood cafe book exchange and loved it. I immediately vowed to find Patchett's novels, which is not always a response I have when I read a memoir I like, as I have not bothered to pick up novels by, say, Anthony Bourdain or Augusten Burroughs. Perhaps the difference is that in the latter two cases, the personality of the author and the milieu is half the charm, whereas the virtues of Patchett's book, which lie not just in the prose (which is excellent) but in the depiction of relationships and a character portrait of someone other than the author, would seem to translate more easily to a novel. So I was pleased to discover that I already had Patchett's The Magician's Apprentice, which I have no recollection of buying.

I had earlier read Grealy's memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which is about her diagnosis of jaw cancer at the age of nine, her horrifying and lengthy treatment with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery that removed much of her jaw, and of her experience growing up with a disfigured face. Though it was quite poetically written and the chemotherapy descriptions in particular were almost unreadably vivid, I had hoped for more of a sense of the author as a person, or more discussion of her experiences as an adult, or something-- it read to me as if large sections were missing or opaque.

When Patchett and Grealy meet in college, Grealy is famous on campus, for her talent, her charisma, and her tragic and dramatic life story-- much of her jaw is missing, she has undergone repeated unsuccessful surgeries to repair her face, and she suffers numerous health and living problems because she can't chew or swallow properly. Patchett is a bit of a nobody. But they end up becoming roommates, and bond instantly in the way that people do when they suddenly meet someone they can talk to about everything they always thought no one else could understand, and with whom the conversation flows. Besides that, they have chemistry. Though there are erotic elements in their relationship, at least in my view, what they mainly have is a friendship that's as lasting and passionate as a lifelong love-affair. In a sense, it is a lifelong love affair.

Oddly, reading the book convinced me of three things: that Patchett really did love Lucy and wrote the book out of love and grief after Lucy's death, that the book is honest to the best of Patchett's ability, and that though I have a lot of sympathy for Lucy Grealy, I don't actually find her likable. She comes across as needy, self-centered, a drama queen, and a bit of spoiled brat who never grows up. Granted, she had a lot to bear and reasons she was the way she was, but still. Patchett does her best to get across Lucy's personal charisma, but it's tough to fully portray a quality that's often solely in a person's aura and not in their words or deeds. Patchett herself is more in the background, but sees herself as the plodding ant to Lucy's charmingly feckless grasshopper.

But the relationship between the two of them comes across beautifully. Lucy loves to be taken care of, and Ann Patchett loves taking care; it's co-dependent, but it's also real love. This is a great character portrait, and a brilliant portrayal of a relationship that on one level makes no sense and on other levels seems inevitable and natural.

I was so curious about the background of the book that I looked it up, and found the swirl of intense and mixed feelings that so frequently surround memoirs: Lucy Grealy's sister is furious with Ann Patchett for writing a book that tells all about Lucy's less-than-stellar qualities, for priveleging her own grief above the family's, and for exposing the family to unwanted fame; readers on Amazon note that Lucy was a bitch who brought everything on herself, or else accuse Patchett of not coming clean about the clearly lesbian nature of the relationship, of cashing in on a dead friend's memory for money, of being a doormat, of allowing Lucy to die (of a drug overdose) through her failure to apply tough love, of making Lucy look bad, of deliberately making Lucy look bad out of spite or jealousy, and of failing to give the proceeds to cancer research; and other readers defend the book at some length.

I wondered, when I read all that, if Ann Patchett hoped that readers would see Lucy as she saw Lucy-- infuriating, irresponsible, but impossibly charming-- and would love her too, and if she was saddened that a lot of them didn't. I wonder if she wishes she'd exposed more of her own flaws for balance, or softened Lucy's. Or if, when she was writing, she left nothing out because it never occurred to her any number of flaws could prevent anyone from loving Lucy.
This memoir is about the friendship between two woman writers, the novelist Ann Patchett and the poet/memoirist Lucy Grealy. I randomly picked this up from my neighborhood cafe book exchange and loved it. I immediately vowed to find Patchett's novels, which is not always a response I have when I read a memoir I like, as I have not bothered to pick up novels by, say, Anthony Bourdain or Augusten Burroughs. Perhaps the difference is that in the latter two cases, the personality of the author and the milieu is half the charm, whereas the virtues of Patchett's book, which lie not just in the prose (which is excellent) but in the depiction of relationships and a character portrait of someone other than the author, would seem to translate more easily to a novel. So I was pleased to discover that I already had Patchett's The Magician's Apprentice, which I have no recollection of buying.

I had earlier read Grealy's memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which is about her diagnosis of jaw cancer at the age of nine, her horrifying and lengthy treatment with chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery that removed much of her jaw, and of her experience growing up with a disfigured face. Though it was quite poetically written and the chemotherapy descriptions in particular were almost unreadably vivid, I had hoped for more of a sense of the author as a person, or more discussion of her experiences as an adult, or something-- it read to me as if large sections were missing or opaque.

When Patchett and Grealy meet in college, Grealy is famous on campus, for her talent, her charisma, and her tragic and dramatic life story-- much of her jaw is missing, she has undergone repeated unsuccessful surgeries to repair her face, and she suffers numerous health and living problems because she can't chew or swallow properly. Patchett is a bit of a nobody. But they end up becoming roommates, and bond instantly in the way that people do when they suddenly meet someone they can talk to about everything they always thought no one else could understand, and with whom the conversation flows. Besides that, they have chemistry. Though there are erotic elements in their relationship, at least in my view, what they mainly have is a friendship that's as lasting and passionate as a lifelong love-affair. In a sense, it is a lifelong love affair.

Oddly, reading the book convinced me of three things: that Patchett really did love Lucy and wrote the book out of love and grief after Lucy's death, that the book is honest to the best of Patchett's ability, and that though I have a lot of sympathy for Lucy Grealy, I don't actually find her likable. She comes across as needy, self-centered, a drama queen, and a bit of spoiled brat who never grows up. Granted, she had a lot to bear and reasons she was the way she was, but still. Patchett does her best to get across Lucy's personal charisma, but it's tough to fully portray a quality that's often solely in a person's aura and not in their words or deeds. Patchett herself is more in the background, but sees herself as the plodding ant to Lucy's charmingly feckless grasshopper.

But the relationship between the two of them comes across beautifully. Lucy loves to be taken care of, and Ann Patchett loves taking care; it's co-dependent, but it's also real love. This is a great character portrait, and a brilliant portrayal of a relationship that on one level makes no sense and on other levels seems inevitable and natural.

I was so curious about the background of the book that I looked it up, and found the swirl of intense and mixed feelings that so frequently surround memoirs: Lucy Grealy's sister is furious with Ann Patchett for writing a book that tells all about Lucy's less-than-stellar qualities, for priveleging her own grief above the family's, and for exposing the family to unwanted fame; readers on Amazon note that Lucy was a bitch who brought everything on herself, or else accuse Patchett of not coming clean about the clearly lesbian nature of the relationship, of cashing in on a dead friend's memory for money, of being a doormat, of allowing Lucy to die (of a drug overdose) through her failure to apply tough love, of making Lucy look bad, of deliberately making Lucy look bad out of spite or jealousy, and of failing to give the proceeds to cancer research; and other readers defend the book at some length.

I wondered, when I read all that, if Ann Patchett hoped that readers would see Lucy as she saw Lucy-- infuriating, irresponsible, but impossibly charming-- and would love her too, and if she was saddened that a lot of them didn't. I wonder if she wishes she'd exposed more of her own flaws for balance, or softened Lucy's. Or if, when she was writing, she left nothing out because it never occurred to her any number of flaws could prevent anyone from loving Lucy.
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