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At a religious retreat at a ski lodge one winter of my adolescence, a minister led a discussion of the story of the prodigal son: Which of its characters did we most take to heart? As one well-scrubbed Bethesda teen after another told of her own downfall (pot smoking, necking, dropping out of poms) and prodigal-like rebirth through Jesus, I squirmed in my off-brand flares, awaiting my turn. I was an outsider, brought by a friend, and I set myself apart further by identifying with the prodigal’s goody-goody brother. “I’m glad the son was forgiven and all,” I said, “but it just seems like the story is giving people license to sin just so they can come back and get glory for turning good again.”

OK, so I was a prig. But I think Ann Patchett, whose Truth & Beauty: A Friendship recounts the bond between a Catholic-girl shepherd and a black-tarred sheep, would understand. At least I hope she would.

Ann was friends, for a couple of decades, with Lucy Grealy. The two became roommates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1985, after knowing each other slightly at Sarah Lawrence. Which is to say that Ann knew Lucy—everyone knew Lucy—in college, but Ann’s only memory of an interaction with her was of the time Lucy pretty much snubbed her in the cafeteria. But when Lucy needs a place to stay in Iowa, who makes all the arrangements for her? Ann. Who listens to her sexual revelations, delivered as lectures? “I would make her a bowl of Cream of Wheat while she talked about pornography, fetish, and whatever had happened the night before,” writes Ann, patiently. Who cleans up half-eaten plates of spaghetti left on the floor? One guess.

The love between the burgeoning writers seems like the deep, inexplicable connection between twins: born of propinquity, ultimately as endangered by personal differences as enriched by them. The Iowa apartment becomes a womb, where these writers- and women-in-training read aloud to one another, deal with housework (one by doing it, the other by ignoring it), and dance in the kitchen:

No matter how dismal things seemed, ungraded papers, brutal weather, we could find the energy to spin around the table under the bright fluorescent lights of our apartment. Lucy was a brilliant dancer and I was tireless in my efforts to imitate her. “Just concentrate on the waist down,” she said. “Take it half a body at a time.”…She moved like water, the embodiment of easy rhythmic confidence, while I hung against the wall.

Lucy’s ease in her body was all the more remarkable for her struggle with it. At the age of 9, she was diagnosed with a malignant tumor of the jaw, one that, statistically, should have killed her—and if it didn’t, the years of crude radiation and chemical treatments might well have. Her face was repeatedly altered, throughout her short life, by surgeries meant to replace her jaw and allow her to have a full set of teeth, to close her mouth, to kiss. The small, slender Lucy seemed stunted by the early trauma—an unplanned pregnancy surprised her because she didn’t expect to be able to become pregnant. Her sometimes childlike emotions were overtaxed by a struggle to understand whether her problems were caused by her face or by something else.

“Enormity,” a word often misused, is an apt one for Lucy’s burden. She had enough success as a poet that she became part of, with novelist Ann, the “Gravy Train”: “[W]e would systematically work our way through just about every perk that was available to us,” Patchett writes of Yaddo, the Bunting Fellowship, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the other havens available to the right applicants. Lucy’s 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which transcends the survivor-story stereotype to examine what it means to be known by others, was a critical triumph and brought her fame on the talk-show circuit. But her medical trials continued, bringing more and more physical and psychic pain. She despaired of lasting love, giving herself over to transient sexual encounters and ruthlessly judging the long-term lovers who might have provided some solace.

Had she accepted them as fully as she accepted friends like Ann, she might have broken them down over time, worn them as thin as Ann by the time she discovered that Lucy, now in her late 30s, was using heroin: “I can’t stand this,” she tells Lucy over dinner in a restaurant. “All these years I’ve watched these things hurt you, things you had no control over, and now to have to watch you hurt yourself, it’s too much for me.” But ultimately, it doesn’t drive her away; a few months after the encounter in the cafe, when Lucy is miserable in a new Brooklyn apartment, Ann orders an entire kitchen setup to be delivered to her: “It was my own special brand of insanity that made me think the trials of Lucy’s life could somehow be eased by the order of Tupperware.”

Ann’s brand of insanity—that’s the only area in which Truth & Beauty lacks depth. So intent is Patchett on showcasing her brilliant, doomed friend that she skimps on her own story. Her references to her own failed relationships are glossed over with far less detail than she lavishes on Lucy’s lovers. And there’s more than a whiff of passive-aggressive anger here and there. In one incident, after Lucy’s memoir has been released to great acclaim, Ann publishes her second novel: “In the same way all the rumblings that preceded Autobiography of a Face made it clear that it was going to be a big book, the comparative silence surrounding this novel made it clear that it was going to sink without a trace….When I was scheduled to give a reading in New York, Lucy suggested that we team up, appear as a double bill…” Ann examines Lucy’s motive: “She was my best friend, and she was lending me the brilliance of her light in a moment when things were looking decidedly dull for me.” The party, of course, ends up being all about Lucy: “[W]e went and sat together at a table where Lucy signed a seemingly endless number of books and I signed a handful.”

Thus do Lucy’s “generous” gestures often seem to be ploys for attention. And the endearments in her chatty letters to Ann are as much about love of words as love of a friend: “Dearest Anngora, my cynical pirate of the elusive heart, my self winding watch, my showpiece, my shoelace, how are you?” When, near the end of her life, Lucy tells her, “[A]t least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted,” Ann is quietly furious—and Lucy is in a “fog of morphine”—but it seems like a declaration that’s been a long time in coming. Patchett the writer backs away from it; Patchett the bereaved woman may well be kept awake at night by it. Perhaps her book, written little over a year after Lucy’s death, may have just come too soon.

Because of Lucy’s wild spirit and obvious artistic gifts, and because of the love that brims from Patchett’s writing even when exasperation, anger, self-doubt, and self-effacement color it as well, Truth & Beauty is ultimately a heartbreaker. It ends with the death that would seem to have been dogging Lucy since childhood finally coming to waltz her off at age 39. But it’s not all one dismal slog toward the grave, any more than real life is. It’s full of delightful quips: Talking about the grim Iowa weather, Lucy observes, “I always wanted one of those ankles that predicted weather….Or an elbow. A snow elbow.” Humor turns to wrenching pain in the story of Lucy’s personal-ad date with a major political dreamboat; it seems to be worth no more than a cocktail-party anecdote until someone suggests that the reason there were “no sparks” was Lucy’s face. Ann’s entanglement with a putative mentor is described with a comic lightness that leans on her own naiveté—but the incident comes in the midst of one of Lucy’s medical crises and, of course, is trumped by it.

Near the end of Autobiography of a Face, Lucy wrote: “[I]t suddenly occurred to me that it is no mistake when sometimes in films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof: they can no longer see themselves in the mirror.” Her longing for that annihilation of the surface, that removal of the glass we see in, darkly, was not a longing for death, but death brought about the freedom she craved; in her essays and poems, and in her friend’s merciless yet loving account, she endures as far more than just another face. As a story of Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty is the equal of Grealy’s own work. As a story of a friendship, it is lacking: It leaves the other friend—the prodigal’s long-suffering sister—behind the veil.CP