Truth and Beauty is Ann Patchett’s only work of nonfiction, a memoir of her friendship with fellow writer and poet Lucy Greely. It is also the story of Patchett’s writing life, beginning as it does when she and Lucy are accepted into the graduate program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Patchett writes beautifully and shows us Lucy and herself as a foil to Lucy throughout the years of their joint struggles to be writers. Lucy is the star, always was the star, and Ann the quiet friend, the helper, the plodder who piles up pages methodically while Lucy manically parties, puts off writing, frets about love, doesn’t pay her bills, falls and has to be picked up again and again. Ann lovingly depicts Lucy with all her flaws, using an analogy that I love, that of the ant and the grasshopper. Ann, of course, is the ant and Lucy the lovable grasshopper, playing music for all to hear, rushing here and there, and not storing up food for the cold winter months. As Ann puts it:
We were a pairing out of an Aesop’s Fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare. And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music, and their interesting side trips. What the story didn’t tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard…..Grasshoppers and hares find the ants and tortoises. They need us to survive, but we need them as well. They were the ones who brought the truth and beauty to the party, which Lucy could tell you as she recited her Keats over breakfast, was better than food any day.
Sometimes we expect and want perfection in our heroes. But as Jane Austen said, “Pictures of perfection make me feel sick and wicked.” I am also reminded of Knightley’s remark about Emma, from Jane Austen’s Emma: “We love her not in spite of her faults, but because of them…”
Because Ann portrays Lucy so truthfully, we can love her as she does. Ann’s tribute to Lucy is a work of truth and beauty. It is fitting to end with Keats:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.