by Ann Patchett
Patchett’s best friend was Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face. Yes, the one with the disfigured face, the one who died of a heroin overdose at age 39. This book is the story of their friendship.
In telling it, Patchett also tells their stories about becoming writers. They went to the same college (Sarah Lawrence) but did not become close until they were in graduate school, in Iowa. And they didn’t really become writers until after that — after more surgeries for Lucy, and after waitressing for Ann.
Patchett makes it clear early on that Grealy is the kind of person who exerts a magnetic pull on those around her; get close enough — as Patchett did — and one will never escape the gravitational forces, no matter how painful things get.
Not that Patchett wanted to escape — it is also clear she loved Grealy, unconditionally. While we see that Grealy could be selfish, rude, and demanding from the beginning, Patchett convinces us that Grealy had enough charm (and a wide enough circle of friends) to always pull it off, always shine at the center of someone’s attention. Grealy was desperate to be loved, desperate to Be A Writer, and embraced the fame that came with the publication of Autobiography of a Face. She didn’t want pity, she wanted adoration. Constantly. She could always count on it from Patchett.
At more than one point, I found myself wondering just what was behind Patchett’s continued patience and devotion. Not that she made herself out to be perfect: she has her own screwed-up romantic relationships, less than ideal job choices — and she has Grealy, repeatedly asking “do you love me?” and “do you think I’m talented?” and eventually, not taking her calls because she is off snorting heroin.
Grealy called her on it, once. Grealy had just had another horrific surgery, and Patchett was with her in the hospital. Grealy tells Patchett she is such a good friend; it is one of those “what did I ever do to deserve you?” moments. For only a minute, because when Patchett tells Grealy she’s a good friend too, Grealy knows she isn’t, and tells Patchett that. Then she says, “But at least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted.” Patchett says it was a terrible thing to say; Grealy says it is true.
The reader only has Patchett’s text to on go here, and it would be hard to conclude it wasn’t true based on the available evidence. Maybe Patchett didn’t realize it, maybe she still doesn’t. I think it was probably a true and that made it a terrible thing to say. Perhaps Patchett thought if she was good enough, she could somehow save Grealy.
There are so many choices Patchett makes, that all of Grealy’s friends make, to give her another chance, to clean up her house, her bills, her life, and they all fail. Grealy was talented, yes, but her desperate desire for love and success could not compete with her desperate desire for heroin. Grealy didn’t want to stay clean, didn’t want to believe in the story about herself where she was an addict, didn’t believe she couldn’t pull off another miracle and again survive.
Patchett loved her enough to paint it that way, anyway. She portrays Grealy as a real person, with grand ideas as well as ludicrous ideas, with larger than life problems, and the all too common one that killed her.
This book doesn’t offer a long, hard look at addiction, or at enabling, or even at grief — it was written too soon after Grealy’s death for those things, perhaps. Instead it is a picture of a friendship as the surviving friends sees it, creating a book from a person because her life is missed so much, I would guess.
Recommended if you have in interest in either writer, or in reading about friendships between women, or in how writers who are big names might have gotten that way.