This year I've been attempting to participate in #readwomen. Not exclusively, but mindfully. And if this isn’t the perfect book for that, I don’t know what is.
This is the first I've read of Ann Patchett. I've always been somewhat drawn to
, but never got around to it. Then after watching that episode of
where Hannah's mom is in NYC for a conference where "so many women feel the way I do about Ann Patchett," it reminded me to pick up her work. (I’m sort of obsessed with Lena Dunham reading lists. I really like Lena Dunham.)
Truth and Beauty
is the one I chose since I’d also read how it was banned (or attempted?) at Clemson University in an article on the recent controversy at the College of Charleston with Alison Bechdel’s
. Oh, Carolina.
I haven’t had many close friends in my life. Only a handful. In part due to my introversion and tendency toward an internal world, maybe partly due to growing up isolated in the country as a child with no others my age nearby, or even something to do with being a teased fat girl trying to stay invisible on the fringes of the playground. I’m quiet and awkward and anxious and don’t have much to say. (Well, shit. Last night I started Marc Maron’s
where he writes,
"The truth is, I can't read anything with any distance. Every book is a self-help book to me."
Ugh.) What I’m getting at is stories of friendships, particularly these all too rare portraits of strong female friendships, read to me the way Harlequin romances must read to others. They leave me yearning and wanting for one of these connections of my own. (Also, a little pathetic) (
– Charlie Brown)(Confessional memoir breeds confessional review.)
Patchett showed such wonderful restraint here. If I had known going in this would be a book full of cancer and addiction, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I’ve read enough of those stories. Addiction and drug stories, however well-done, all tend toward the same arc. I feel like I’ve outgrown them, at least for a while. And I’ve been avoiding cancer and medical renditions after my own recent family traumas of the past few months. Seeing blood coursing through tubes leading directly from my dad’s chest into a fluid measuring device near my feet as he painfully coughed and choked in the ICU after having the lower lobe of his lung removed, and the cancer along with it, is still fresh enough in my mind that I don’t really care to read anyone else’s lengthy description of the sort. But none of this was Patchett’s focus, though these scenes were there. The melodrama could have been so easily applied, and yet Patchett stayed perfectly small and beautifully minimal in her choices of phrase.
When Patchett described Lucy’s readings after the publication of
Autobiography of a Face
“I didn’t remember it,” Lucy said pointedly. “I wrote it. I’m a writer.” This shocked the audience more than her dismissal of illness, but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event. That she chose to tell her own extraordinary story was of secondary importance. Her cancer and subsequent suffering had not made this book. She had made it.
I wonder how much of this can be applied to Patchett and her feelings toward
Truth and Beauty
as well. Particularly after reading Suellen Grearly’s scathing piece at
in response to Patchett’s book about her sister (The piece reads unfairly, a bit too harsh and too bitter with the lines such as,
“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.”
Yikes.). How much of memoir is memory and how much is art? To what extent is the writer’s intent toward either? And, in the end, does it matter?