Friday, 20 December 2013

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

I am often at a loss with memoirs. I don't know what I'm expecting out of them, or how really to take them. As they're about lives, they don't conform to narrative conventions, but as they're not histories, they tend to give little of the context I crave. At best, they're someone giving you a glimpse into their life, and that springs vitally from the page. At worst, it feels like reading about a stranger, without enough of the context to understand.

This one falls somewhere in the middle. I feel thoroughly "meh" about Truth and Beauty. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it, I was never eager to get back to it, but I was never loath to pick it up. It's certainly heartfelt, although sometimes it felt like a friend trying to lay claim to her best friend, to make sure all the other friends knew she was the most important. Maybe that's part of the dynamic of the relationship, and if it is, it comes across on the page.

This is the story of Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealey. I know little about either of them - well, I've read one other Ann Patchett, and I really didn't like it, so we were not exactly starting out on the right foot here. They became close friends while struggling through writing programs, and, well, I'd say supported each other through the following years of teaching and struggle and writing fellowships, except that it seems that the support went mostly one way.

Because it feels like Lucy Grealey would be very frustrating to be friends with, if you're expecting friendships to be reciprocal. I've had friends like that, who took all the attention I would give and gave little back, around whose much more intense lives I let myself become absorbed and only realized later how little I was getting out of that relationship. But I pretty much left those behind after high school and decided I wasn't doing that anymore - if I was going to be friends with someone, I wanted there to be give as well as take.

But it doesn't seem like Lucy gave. She had an immense need, and it seemed to have gratified Ann Patchett to be needed that much, and no doubt she was exciting to be around. But you can't save someone with the sheer force of your desire to meet her needs, and propping her up only lasts so long - as it did in this case, with a death.

Would I be more tolerant of this narrative if it didn't have the barest echoes of something I recognize and was very glad to get away from? If the romanticization that can occur after death didn't cast its light over a situation that sounded so frustrating? If people can be friends with people who need so much, more power to them. And Patchett doesn't paper over how difficult Lucy was, but the overwhelming sense is one of having been grateful for being allowed to be needed. It's an interesting study, but either too far or too close to my experience for me to truly enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished reading this and find myself in much the same mindset as you have in this review. A friend gave this to me after I mentioned that I wished we would talk about friendship the way we tend to talk about romance in our society.

    Like you, I found the one-way relationship between Ann and Lucy problematic, not necessarily for what it was but for what it reflected about the reader’s life.

    Normally I don't mind reading stuff with downer endings, but I dragged this one out. There was something—I don’t know if it’s because it’s non-fiction, or what—that made me less than enthusiastic about watching Ann describe Lucy’s decline.

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