In her first nonfiction, novelist Patchett (Bel Canto, 2001, etc.) paints a deeply moving portrait of friendship between two talented writers, illuminating the bond between herself and poet Lucy Grealy.
Although they were undergraduates together at Sarah Lawrence, it was not until 1981, when both were teaching and writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that the young women’s lives collided. As Patchett recounts it, the tiny Grealy (Autobiography of a Face, 1994) leaped into her arms. “It was not so much a greeting as it was a claim: she was staking out this spot on my chest and I was to hold her for as long as she wanted to stay.” That image persists in their 20-year friendship; Grealy had a powerful hold on her many friends, Patchett included. A survivor of childhood cancer with a badly disfigured face and a frail body, Grealy struggled with enormous physical difficulties, bouts of depression, and money problems; she was also given to reckless sexual adventures. Early in their friendship, Patchett decided that she would not spend her time worrying about her friend; instead, she would show her love in actions. And she did so for the rest of Grealy’s short life, providing shelter, paying bills, giving post-surgery care, cleaning up the messes. After Iowa, their lives took different paths, but their friendship remained strong. Patchett saved Grealy’s letters to her and includes generous excerpts that make it easier to understand her commitment to her demanding friend. The letters reveal Grealy’s warmth, her captivating intellect, her poet’s eye. After her last round of surgery failed, she went from prescription painkillers to street heroin, and her life spiraled downward, but even when Grealy was most devastated and difficult, Patchett still found her the person she knew best and was most comfortable with, the friend like no other to whom she could speak with “complexity and nuance.”
A tough and loving tribute, hard to put down, impossible to forget.