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Book Club: Let’s Discuss “Truth and Beauty”

This was my second time reading Truth and Beauty, having read it in one sitting years ago on the train from Manhattan to Vermont, and I have to say, I found Lucy and Ann much less likable in this second reading of the book. Lucy’s self-obsession gets really annoying around page 50 or so, and Ann’s total lack of personality pretty much drains from the beginning. And while there was still something admirable about their loyalty to each other, the co-dependency of their friendship seemed much sadder in this reading of the book.

What did you guys think? Did you envy their intimate friendship at all? I do envy parts of it. I envy the way they encourage one another to write and the comfort they share in each other’s company. But for the most part, their relationship left me feeling a little hollow. (Side note: check out Lucy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face for a different version of the same story). How do you think Lucy’s health struggles affected her friendship with Ann? Do you think they even would have been friends? I doubt it. I mean, I think they would have been acquaintances, but not confidantes — not like they were. Lucy wouldn’t have needed Ann like she did and Ann, in turn, wouldn’t have felt important in the world of someone so well-known, however localized Lucy’s celebrity was at the start of their friendship.

What did you think about the fact that Lucy had a twin sister whom she wasn’t terribly close to? Another sister, Suellen Grealy, wrote an article years ago that’s an interesting read. Of Truth and Beauty, she writes:

I wished that Ann would not publish the book. I admired and had defended her need to write as an artist, but I hoped she would finish it off, for herself, and put it under the bed. I’d have preferred her to work with a smaller publisher, one with less of a publicity machine than HarperCollins. That she’d ask for no publicity. I wanted her to wait until my mother was dead.

She felt it was her right, even her obligation, to write the book, and that it had to be HarperCollins because that was her publisher.

She continues:

My sister Lucy was a uniquely gifted writer. Ann, not so gifted, is lucky to be able to hitch her wagon to my sister’s star. I wish Lucy’s work had been left to stand on its own.

And, finally:

Why is that memory so elusive? Because it is so precious? Because it is mine alone, one that I don’t have to share with the hundreds of thousands of total strangers who think they understand Lucy through Ann Patchett’s personal vantage point?

Truth & Beauty has enhanced Ann’s reputation as a writer, though many have questioned the speed with which she published it, and the validity of exposing Lucy’s frailties, not apparent in Autobiography Of A Face. I’m sorry I stood by as this happened.

My sister Sarah and I have been travelling too long in the land of grief, and we would like to come home, to prop our pictures on the mantelpiece and to get on with our lives. But there is the book: what can we do with a grief thief?

These quotes bring up an interesting idea about the ownership of memories when they’re shared in a public fashion. Most writers of creative nonfiction grapple with this issue — of the integrity of sharing what is essentially only one vantage point out of several in their memories. Even the memories of one person shift and change over the years, so, of course, one version on one person’s memory will differ from someone else’s. So what is the most ethical way to share your memories when the people who co-own them aren’t around to share their versions? What is ethical when your version of the memory affects surviving loved ones and the way they process their grief? Was Ann Patchett “right” in publishing this book? Did she owe Lucy’s family anything in return for “stealing their grief”? And to you think there’s any truth to the idea of Ann hitching her wagon to Lucy’s star, both while she was living and after she died?

And don’t forget: July’s book club selection is Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. You can buy the paperback version here and the Kindle version here.

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{ 10 comments… add one }

avatar kerrycontrary July 5, 2012, 1:23 pm

I would like to address the two points that Wendy brought up, their codependent friendship and the ethical question of the book itself. In terms of the friendship I found the level of co-dependency and neediness of Lucy (“Do you love me, pet?”) to be unnerving but also believable. Someone who has gone through so many surgeries and physical disfigurement would almost certainly suffer some sort of psychological trauma and need therapy to sort out her related feelings. I wish Lucy had used therapy rather than putting all of her insecurities and problems onto Ann. I found the storyline of their friendship though to be captivating and I read this book very quickly. I believe that as writers they helped each other and Ann did not purposefully piggyback off of Lucy. Sometimes one of them had success and sometimes the other one had success, but they always meant to help each other. And do we not want to help our friends professionally as much as possible if we believe they are talented as well?

In terms of Ann writing her book I don’t believe she did anything wrong. While this may have been difficult to swallow for Lucy’s family, people often romanticize others in death. Writing the book may have been Ann’s way of processing grief. Ann was seemingly closer to Lucy than much of her family, so who knew her better? And would miss her absence more? And many people may think it’s unethical of her to profit off of her memory, but would Lucy really be angry at Ann for sharing their friendship with the world? I’m not sure.

avatar The_Yellow_Dart July 5, 2012, 1:34 pm

I was also puzzled by Ann’s relative absence in many moments in the book, even though the book was about her and Lucy. Lucy came across as extremely manipulative, especially towards the end, and the fact that Ann was just absent made the book difficult to read for me.

I also agree with kerrycontrary that writing this book was probably Ann’s way of dealing with her grief. And our memories are our own, so I believe that Ann had every right to publish the book as a work of non-fiction as long as she did not commit libel. It’s like _Rashomon_, just because Ann’s memories are published doesn’t mean that they constitute a definitive version of events…

avatar The_Yellow_Dart July 5, 2012, 2:10 pm

They both had really bad taste in men (except perhaps Ann at the end) – they could have used Dear Wendy :)

Roxy_84 Roxy84 July 5, 2012, 4:49 pm

To me, the book rang true, and I think Lucy’s sister is critical of Ann not for being untruthful, but perhaps unkind in her portrayal of Lucy. I agree with Kerry that she seems to prefer that people hold a certain image of Lucy, and Ann’s book showed a less flattering side of her personality. Suellen probably would have preferred people hold the image many seemed to have at first when reading “Autobiography of a Face” – when the book discussed Lucy’s reading and how most people didn’t really “get it”….that seems to be the impression Suellen would have preferred people hold, that Lucy was a romantic crusader against horribly stacked odds and wrote to give other people courage. I don’t think Ann did anything wrong, but I can see why Suellen would have been upset.

As for what I think about their friendship…it was incredibly disturbing. I can see what they both got out of it, but still….

avatar painted_lady July 5, 2012, 7:47 pm

I loved this book. Seriously interesting and compelling read – the friendship was complicated and in many ways unhealthy, but I honestly thought Ann seemed pretty fair in her portrayal of a very complicated person, sometimes at cost to herself.

Suellen’s reaction to the book honestly made me angry. I understand family ties, and I also understand that a clearer knowledge of someone’s upbringing might reveal facets of their personality that someone who meets them as an adult might not be able to see in the same light. But I hate the idea of any one party having ownership over another person’s memory to the extent that someone else has no right to their own perceptions. I thought it was pretty clear that Ann loved Lucy despite any perceived flaws, of which there were many, and so there was little malice in the telling of this story. Pity, yes, but Lucy seemed to thrive off pity, understandably so, so I doubt she would have minded. It seems Suellen was simply hurting and sad, and she took, I think, some uncalled-for potshots at Ann’s talent in hope of casting Lucy in a better light. She’s grieving, of course, but it’s incredibly unfair for her to deny Ann her right to a relationship with Lucy that’s completely legitimate as well.

It’s an incredibly sad book, but I admire the unflinching portrayal of both women. Ann Patchett is an incredibly talented writer.

avatar kerrycontrary July 6, 2012, 9:52 am

I disliked Suellen’s reaction as well. Especially this part: “I knew that Lucy, stripped down to the essence of sister and daughter, would want us to be happy together. Ann disagreed – she felt that Lucy would still be jealous of our developing friendship. It was almost as if she was excited by the idea. ”

See, I think Ann has Lucy’s reaction pegged in this instance because Lucy was possessive of Ann. Their relationship reminded me more of quarreling lovers rather than a healthy friendship. And because of this I really think Ann knew Lucy better than her family did.

avatar E July 5, 2012, 7:56 pm

I read Truth and Beauty a while ago and thought it was interesting. I find Suellen Grealy’s anger at Ann Patchett kind of interesting and misplaced. Ann had written Bel Canto a few years before Truth and Beauty…and she won several awards for Bel Canto, including the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. If someone wants to talk about Ann’s best known work, they would say Bel Canto or even The Patron Saint of Liars before they would say Truth and Beauty. I honestly don’t think Truth and Beauty helped Ann more than Bel Canto or her other works, or that Ann had to use Lucy’s name to get publicity. One doesn’t own grief, no matter how much Suellen might want to believe that. Ann knew Lucy for many, may years…This wasn’t some short friendship….

avatar painted_lady July 5, 2012, 8:12 pm

You said it way better than me. Suellen doesn’t own grief.

And if we’re going to be unkind about other people’s writing, Ann Patchett has, what, four very well-received books including this one? Lucy published one. Autobiography of a Face may be brilliant, but Ann has several wonderful books. Even if Lucy had more raw talent than Ann, what does it matter if she couldn’t harness it?

avatar The_Yellow_Dart July 6, 2012, 9:14 am

I agree with you both – I had never heard of Lucy before I read _Truth and Beauty_. I had, however, heard much more about Ann Patchett, and I read _Bel Canto_ several years ago…

avatar Galiush July 6, 2012, 4:54 am

Completely agree with Wendy; “Lucy’s self-obsession gets really annoying around page 50 or so, and Ann’s total lack of personality pretty much drains from the beginning.”
It was an interesting read, though.
I think although Ann had every right to write the book, Suellen’s claim that this portrayal will be what people will believe and accept as the only true portrayal is true.
But as painful as it may be – her sister chose and wanted to live a public life, where she could not always control the way people percieved her.

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