Tuesday, July 25, 2006

21. Truth & Beauty

by Ann Patchett

I’m slightly hesitant to post what I really think about Ann Patchett’s memoir because it seems, well, sort of wrong to criticize a memoir, especially when your criticism isn’t of the writing itself (I think that’s perfectly fine), but of the people themselves. Who are you or I to pass judgment on these people’s lives? But it’s something of human nature to do that, I think, so I won’t hold back too much when I pass my judgments and, besides, anyone is free to dismiss them as they wish.

For a bit of background, in case you haven’t heard of the book which means you’ve been living under a bit of a literary rock, Truth & Beauty is Ann Patchett’s chronicle of her friendship with author Lucy Grealy, who is famous for her own memoir, Autobiography of a Face. Due to childhood cancer, Lucy’s missing part of her jaw and both her own book and Ann’s focus on this. Anne’s book, however, is more about how the two of them became friends, how their writings were submitted and rejected and submitted and finally accepted, how they met men and left men, and how they were a part of each other’s lives right up until Lucy’s death. The book is a very revealing portrait of this strong bond between the two women and you’d be hard-pressed to not be somewhat moved by their devotion to each other.

Which is where my criticism comes in. I guess my criticism isn’t really of the women themselves or with the way Ann tells their story, but with the way the book is being described as a truthful telling of women’s friendships. I disagree with that. This may be a truthful telling of their friendship, but I do not at all think this speaks for women’s friendship as a whole. For some reason women’s friendships have been looked upon as a sort of mystical relationship that people keep trying to understand. (Is it really people, though? Do men care about our friendships or is it just other women who try to understand how female social networks act? I wonder.) Look at the success of Sex and the City and the way everyone hailed it as showing how women really spoke amongst their female friends. Lucy and Ann’s friendship is very affectionate, they share everything, and Lucy is very dependent on Anne’s presence and approval. (At least, that’s the way it’s portrayed. I don’t claim to speak for the actual people in the story.) Is that how people think we really are?

I know I reacted so strongly to this depiction because it’s the exact opposite of the kind of person I am. I definitely have strong friendships and there are people from whom I’d do just about anything, but there are things I doubt I’d be willing to do for anybody. I wouldn’t be able to deal with someone leaping in my lap and constantly asking if I loved them best. I wouldn’t be able to deal with someone complaining about her love life while being as promiscuous as possible. I wouldn’t be able to deal with someone addicted to drugs who does less to help herself than she expects me to do to help her. I believe that only you can make yourself happy and while other people can factor in that level of happiness, if you’re not happy with yourself no one else is going to make that happen for you. So, to see a portrait of a friendship that is clearly codependent with people who are not self-staining and to see that described as being the spokes model for women’s friendships everywhere, that really irks me. That’s not the kind of friendships I have. In fact, if Lucy were my friend, I would have dumped her long ago.

Maybe I’m not that compassionate of a person, but I don’t keep people in my life who suck me dry and then chalk it all up to the mysteries of the female friendship. Again, I’m not trying to judge what Ann and Lucy really had, but this is the way I read their written characterizations and the reaction I had knowing this is what people are saying we’re all like. I realize that neither Ann nor Lucy were your average people, but then, what’s average? Who’s normal? Whose to say that their friendship is better or worse or indicative of friendships as a whole? I’m not saying what they had was wrong, just that it doesn’t speak to me. I’m not saying Truth & Beauty was bad, either, but that it made me uncomfortable as a woman.

Actually, I’ll stop defending my opinion on it now and just say: read it. And let me know what you think.

2 Comments:

Blogger jenclair said...

I read this last year and think this is the first review that mentions some of the things that bothered me. However, something I've thought about for many years is that as much as I love Dylan Thomas' poetry, the man would have driven me insane, and I would have tired of his antics and would have extricated myself early in the relationship.

In many ways, I enjoyed the book, even knowing that I could not have been the kind of friend Lucy needed. On the other hand, maybe something about what Lucy was able to contribute to the friendship just missed its mark somehow in the translation.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Exxie said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt this way. You're right, in that it's possible Lucy contributed something to the relationship that didn't come across in translation, which is what made it so difficult for me to criticize. It would have been much easier if this were fiction and then I could have said it just didn't ring true. But since it was true...not really a valid complaint, is it?

5:47 PM  

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