Thursday, September 16, 2010

No Second Acts

Lucy Grealy, as depicted in Ann Patchett's book, is a selfish asshole. She's the worst kind of intellectual girl, the kind you try not to roll your eyes at because they're just so "fun" and "different" and "free spirited" but it just seems more that they just really, really, really want to be noticed. Essentially, she's Natalie Portman in that Garden State movie. Funny thing is, I was pretty captivated by her in this book. The whole thing really drew me in even though I found Lucy pretty much consistently irritating throughout just begging for constant attention and reassurance. But, can you blame her?

For those unfamiliar with the story, the memoir is of Ann Patchett's selfless friendship with the selfish Lucy Grealy. Lucy was the toast of Sarah Lawrence where Ann got to know of her and they both got into Iowa's MFA, and they became fantastic friends until Lucy's early death (she didn't die from a cancer relapse though). The thing that makes Lucy's story so different is that Lucy had childhood cancer and lost part of her face to it, which she wrote about in her own memoir, Autobiography of a Face. Since she grew up mutilated in such an obvious way that cannot be masked, it of course caused some emotional scarring along the way; being shunned and stared at and openly mocked by children and assholes alike does take a toll on a person's psyche. So maybe that's what let me forgive her trespasses.

Lucy did try to undo what the cancer took from her. She underwent countless surgeries, most of them sounding more like Dr. Frankenstein experiments with skin, bone and tissue grafts, oh and the three years in Scotland with her face skin being expanded. It made the whole doctoring profession seem more like a child trying to untie a complicated knot in a fishing line, not exactly science-like precision as we imagine it, just trial and errors and effort. Knowing she underwent all that, also made me forgive her attitude a little.

Also there were the letters that Patchett shared which I found really interesting so it let Lucy speak for herself (to a degree, assuming they weren't heavily edited/changed for the book) instead of just this image of Lucy from Ann's point of view the whole time. That also revealed the Lucy that Ann actually saw and not the image of Lucy Ann had to portray in the memoir, if that makes any sense.

Long and short of it is, it's a fine book, a decent read. Well worth the used price I paid for it. I wasn't particularly moved by it, which I blame on the sudden appearance of Lucy being a hard drug user, which I did not see coming at all in a bad way...the surprise did not seem to fit for me because I didnt' see any behavior beforehand that would be indicative of a person who would start in using heroin. Maybe that's not fair and there wasn't...Lucy just sprung it one day on Ann, a little "By the way, I'm chasing the dragon. Bye, pet!"

But the more I think about this book, there's an element that bugs me about it. And it probably bugged Lucy, too. She has this face issue. Not her fault she got cancer and it robbed her of a normal life because of a section of her face was amputated. Anyway, her whole life is lived in relation to that face problem. No matter what she achieves, there's that face problem. She'll never not have that face problem, even if she didn't. Even if she had a surgery that was a total success, she'll always have that face problem.

In my own selfish lot, people don't have to know that I had a huge weight problem unless I tell them. People who I meet now have now image of the 140 pounds heavier me, so it's easy for me. I can live beyond my problem. Not Lucy. She never had the chance to be anything but the overcoming of a problem.

Take her sex life shown in this book for example. The amount of sex Lucy has in this book, if factual, is phenomenal. And the whole time, I was left thinking, "But, she has that face thing right? She can't be that bad off if she's having sex with this kind of regularity. I know some regular looking people who aren't this lucky in the bedroom. She must talk one helluva game." Her sex life is tied straight to her face. Her one super-successful about her face. Honestly, this whole book is kind of about, in some way, Lucy's face and her achievements & failings because of it.

And that's what bugs me about this book since it's subtitled "A Friendship." This isn't so much about the friendship because to be honest, the friendship is mostly one sided with Lucy using Ann like a crutch, a blanket, a disciple. Being a few days removed from the close of the book, and writing this pretty tired, I can't think of a single thing that Lucy gave Ann besides the pleasure of her company. Mostly, this is about what Lucy's face did to her from Ann Patchett's point of view. Maybe that's the point, I don't know.

But I have to wonder what Lucy thought about her predicament, which is why I'm reading her book next. Mostly, I'm interested in how self-aware she was of the problems the face issue presents for her. Like, did she think that she would be anything other than the girl with the face problem? Did she resent, but yet also kind of enjoy the face problem to a point? By enjoy, I don't mean she ever outwardly would ever say thanks for the cancer that took her teeth and the ability to close her mouth, that would be absurd, but her position as a successful writer came about because of her face (though maybe she would have "made it" as a poet if not for the memoir, and just on the strength of her writing alone). That face problem defines her, we can agree on that, so how she dealt with that definition would be interesting to read about. For a frame of reference, there are times where I think my entire life is in some way revolving around my weight, and I hate that deeply and I don't manage it well. But, what was Lucy's relationship to her face beyond seeing it as something to fix or change? I don't think I'm making my point very well.

Anyway, go read Ann Patchett's book. It's succeeds in spite of itself, which is what we should all strive for as people, yeah?

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