What are you reading?

Elena Cawley 

True beauty has meaning and lasts longer than outward pretty appearance, which may be gorgeous and may attract your eyes but fades quickly and leaves no memory.

Ann Patchett writes about beauty. Among Patchett’s books are “Bel Canto,” which received the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and “The Dutch House,” a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

My favorite of Patchett’s books is “Truth and Beauty” which describes Patchett’s friendship with poet Lucy Grealy. Their paths first crossed at Sarah Lawrence College, and later, they became friends.

In “Truth and Beauty,” Patchett wrote: “Even at Sarah Lawrence, a school full of models and actresses and millionaire daughters of industry, everyone knew Lucy and everyone knew her story: she had had a Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of nine, had lived through five years of the most brutal radiation and chemotherapy, and then undergone a series of reconstructive surgeries that were largely unsuccessful.”

Grealy was the smartest student in all of her classes, wrote Patchett.

“She kept her head tipped down over her face to hide the fact that part of her lower jaw was missing. From a distance you would have thought she had lost something, money or keys, that she was vigilantly searching the ground trying to find it.”

Considered a “serious talent,” Grealy wrote poems that captured the attention of the audience during readings in coffee shops.

Patchett shared part of Grealy’s poetry:

“When I dream of fire,

You’re still the one I’d safe,

Though I’ve come to think of myself,

As the flames, the splintering rafters.”

Patchett wrote that Grealy didn’t want to be known for her face, she wanted to be known for her poetry.

Born in 1963, Grealy wrote “Autobiography of a Face” in 1994. Developing an addiction to painkillers, she died of an overdose when she was 39.

In her book, Grealy describes her experience during her youth with cancer in the jaw which led to a disfigured face.

The society, its understanding of beauty and its attitude toward the importance of the outward appearance made her feel unwanted and unloved.

Society, with its superficial appreciation of people’s shell – rather than their intelligence, strength, or character –prevents people from reaching their full potential and from experiencing personal and professional growth and happiness. Society often denies acceptance by giving too much weight to the facade and attributing the qualities of the individual to the exterior traits.

Grealy dreamed of a world in which she wouldn’t have to be conscious of her appearance.    

“What would it be like to walk down the street and be able to trust than no one would say anything nasty to me,” she would write. “My only clues were from Halloween and from the winter, when I could wrap up the lower half of my face in a scarf and talk to people who had no idea that my beauty was a lie, a trick that would be exposed the minute I had to take off the scarf. To feel that confidence without the threat of exposure – how could I possibly want anything more? If they thought I was beautiful, and here I could almost not dare to think such a thing, they might even love me. Me, as individual, as a person.”

We have to remember that meaningful beauty is more important than superficial prettiness.

“Autobiography of a Face” is available on Libby app.

You can also read Ann Patchett’s books on Libby app, available through the library in Manchester. The following books by Ann Patchett are available on Libby: “The Dutch House,” “Commonwealth,” Bel Canto,” “State of Wonder,” “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” “Patron Saint of Liars,” “Run,” “The Musician’s Assistant,” “Taft,” “Truth and Beauty,” “What Now?” 

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