Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2004 | Reviews

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

By Kathryn Howe

Ann knew Lucy before Lucy knew her. Lucy had an unforgettable face, after all, and it alone elevated her to a sort of celebrity status.

In college at Sarah Lawrence, everyone recognized Lucy for what she’d been through. They knew that doctors had diagnosed her with Ewing’s sarcoma at age nine, that she had lost part of her jaw to the cancer, and that she had endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments and years of surgeries to put her melted face back together. They knew her because of her outward appearance, which didn’t equate to knowing her at all.

But Ann would eventually come to know and understand Lucy like few friends probably ever do. They poured the foundation for their relationship in 1980s Iowa City, when the two became roommates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Bursting into their duplex on Governor Street on Ann’s first day in town, Lucy flung her tiny body into her new friend’s arms—and so began a union that became one of the most intense and defining relationships of their lives.

In Truth & Beauty, her first work of nonfiction, Ann Patchett follows the unique 20-year bond she and Lucy shared through their workshop days; their quest to become established writers; the seemingly endless surgeries to reconstruct Lucy’s face and her struggles with loneliness and depression; their success and fame; and finally, the pain of their separation after Lucy spirals into drug addiction.

A lesson in devotion, this book will touch anyone who knows what it is to call another person “friend.” Ann employs vivid memories, anecdotes, dialogue, and years’ worth of eloquent letters from Lucy to document the life experiences they shared. The two possessed an intimate spiritual connection, evident in the exchange of pet names and the way that Lucy so enjoyed sitting on Ann’s lap or cuddling with her on cold Iowa evenings. With searing prose, Ann lets her readers share an uncommon friendship that tested the very bounds of commitment and love.

To Lucy, the great tragedy of her life wasn’t so much cancer but living with the disfigured reflection in the mirror. This brought her a world of emotional pain, and she was haunted by the thought that no man could ever love her.

Because of Lucy’s wounded spirit, many of the book’s conversations recall times that Ann spent consoling her, offering constant reassurance that she was, in fact, adored and that she would indeed succeed as a writer (this needy side of Lucy can grow tiresome). Lucy also often seeks reassurance that she’s Ann’s dearest friend.

Ann’s role is one of selfless caretaker and nurturer—a rock that a soul adrift could easily latch onto. She is steady and dependable and spends a heroic amount of energy (one might say too much) mothering her broken friend. In stark contrast, Lucy is often an undisputed mess. But in the excerpts that describe her at her best, she’s a bright and shining social butterfly with plenty of friends and the secret to living a full life.

Sadly, as much as she’s there for Lucy, Ann cannot save her in the end.

Through the changing fortunes of their lives, from divorce and abortion to fellowships and book deals—including Lucy’s brilliant literary pinnacle, the publication of her critically acclaimed Autobiography of a Face—Ann shows us how true friendship evolves and endures. And how some of the deepest connections can be formed between the hearts of two women.