Autobiography of a Face / Truth and Beauty

and and Contemporary 21st Century
This edition printed in: ,

A tortie sits curled around two books: one with a picture of a grasshopper on it and one with a picture of a woman with a covered face.

Here We Are, It’s A Holiday Weekend

By the time you read this, the holiday weekend will be in the rearview mirror, but as I write it, I’m knee deep in TCM Americana films, as well as an explosion of Canadiana up and down our street. It’s a strange juxtaposition, but I think nearly every Canadian living in a tourist town is used to it.

Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty and Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face lie stacked beside a pair of orange paws.

I’m more excited that my lovely spouse and I are going out to a fancy dinner, and this weekend promises less work and more time to work on our own fiction projects instead of that of countless clients. I love the work we do, but sometimes I really wish we could get away with doing less of it. This is especially true when the garden work beckons as well and we have squeaky friend problems running across our veranda.

But no! I will not focus on problems. For once I am going to somehow convince my brain to take a holiday and just live in the very calm, relaxing, writing-filled moment, please and thank you.

A pair of paws can be see beside two books: Grealy's Autobiography of a Face and Patchett's Truth & Beauty.

Two Non-Fiction Selections

My summer of reading non-fiction continues with two selections — Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty. The two books naturally go together and I’ve decided to review them together here because I feel like they end up completing each other.

Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face has a picture of a woman with her face covered with plastic. She is feeling along her head and seems distressed.

Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face is an account of her harrowing childhood illness, and the disfigurement of her face due to it. Grealy faces surgery after surgery and undergoes years of treatment that leave her constantly sick, and that’s followed promptly by disastrous attempts at reconstruction. Through it all, Grealy struggles to come to grips with her constantly changing face, and how the world sees it. It’s a novel about identity just as much as it is a memoir.

Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty more firmly fits the memoir category as she traces her friendship with Grealy from their first days at graduate school in Iowa to Grealy’s death decades later in New York City. Patchett discusses becoming a writer, and the trials of being a friend to someone who demands love but does not love herself. She describes going through surgeries with Grealy, weathering their days as no-names and the years of eventual fame and plenty. Patchett writes about her growth, but also about how that growth affects the friendship and how it changes over time.

A tortie with orange and black fur sits with two books.

Autobiography of a Face

Grealy’s prose is stark, impactful, and achingly beautiful. She writes about a child’s experience of life-threatening illness with a rare clarity that is absolutely heartbreaking and compelling. As the realities of treatment and surgery unfolds, the reader realizes how much Grealy suffered, not only with her face but also with being kept in the dark when it came to what was happening to her. The bullying she went through is rendered in harrowing detail, as well as the efforts of her parents and others that, while welcome, fell short of true understanding.

What the reader keenly feels is how truly solitary Grealy feels — alienated by her appearance, but more so by her experience of being a sick child. Even family, even close friends are in a world apart from the one in which she dwells to the extent that she feels more truly at home while sick in hospital than she does anywhere else. Grealy struggles to fit in, and ultimately the end of the book doesn’t provide the sense that she ever does. It feels like there is a missing part of Grealy that she still cannot confront in the mirror. In her solitude, other people disappear, and it’s hard to determine just where she goes on from here or if she ever bridges the gap towards other people.

A tortie sits with two books on a blue brocade background.

Truth and Beauty

Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty supplies the missing pieces of Autobiography of a Face in the sense that Patchett tells us how Grealy’s face truly impacted her relationships to other people. Constantly insecure, constantly looking for affection in very destructive places, Grealy was her own worst enemy in many crucial ways. She craved attention and connection but did not know how to seek it. She struggled with reading people and their intentions, and, while Patchett was always there for her, a lot of other people failed to be. Even success did little to help fix Grealy’s problems, and instead created many new ones.

However, it’s important to understand that Patchett is not herself an objective observer of what is happening to Grealy. She has her own struggles with her upbringing and with her journey to success and, while she was a close friend to Grealy, she wasn’t constantly around Grealy. They lived separate lives that intersected constantly, but not continuously. I actually read Patchett’s book first, and it made me want to read Grealy’s simply to get a complete picture of Grealy’s life and in her own words.

Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty features a cover with a grasshopper jumping and spreading right pink wings while an ant walks below it.

Fireworks Time Again

So, like nearly every other cat, our little girls also hate fireworks. So we will be battening down the hatches tonight. Part of me kind of hopes that our little squeaky friend will also hate fireworks and scurry along its’s merry way, but I doubt that I’ll actually be that lucky.

At least, I can be grateful that, while it will be noisy, the air won’t smell like fire any more. We’re so lucky that our air quality warning has ended. And we’re lucky to not be near any of the devastating wildfires. I send my condolences to anyone who has been impacted. I hope these wildfires give people the wake-up call they need to realize that we have to take care of the environment and demand its protection, so that we can do our best to combat climate change.

Myself and my lovely spouse just purchased a couple of secondhand vintage bikes and we’re going to start using them for small errands instead of the car. Every little bit helps!

Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty lie stacked beside a pair of cat's paws.

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