AS LUCY GREALY WAS ABOUT TO turn 30 last year, she was visiting London, feeling lonely and depressed. On the spur of the moment, she bought an airplane ticket to Greece and, before she knew it, found herself having a passionate fling with an island fisherman. "On the day of my 30th birthday," Grealy recalls with some amazement, "he took me sailing. And I'm lying there naked on the prow of his boat as it's plowing through these clear Mediterranean waters. We're drinking wine. And I just kept thinking, This is okay. I can handle 30.' "

For Grealy, there are a couple of miraculous things about this story. The first is that she is even alive. At the age of 9, after a pain in her jaw would not go away, she was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare and often fatal form of bone cancer, and suffered through 2½ years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The second surprise, she says, is that she was able to attract a lover. Grealy lost part of her jaw to the cancer and then underwent 20 reconstructive operations to repair her disfigured face—a face that she believed made her hideous and unlovable. "Even now that I've come this far," says Grealy, who shares a bright, one-room Manhattan apartment with her parrot Oliver (named for her plastic surgeon) and her cats Charlotte and Stinky, "I still can't help thinking my life will be one failure after another."

Romantic escapades aside, Grealy's latest proof to the contrary is Autobiography of a Face (Houghton Mifflin), the book she wrote about her ordeal and her quest—which she now believes was misguided—for physical beauty. The book has just been published to rapturous reviews ("Taut, bright-eyed, fierce with intelligence and feeling," glowed The New York Times), bringing Grealy the kind of attention she sees as a mixed blessing. "There are points where I think, 'Great, I'm getting famous for being ugly,' " she says.

It is true that upon first meeting Grealy, one's gaze is drawn to the lower half of her face. Her small mouth is misshapen, the right side slightly crumpled, part of the lower lip no more than a fine line. But almost immediately, her fresh-faced beauty along with her engaging personality, are what rivet a viewer's attention. Still, confesses Grealy, who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., and is also a prize-winning poet, "there's a part of me that feels no one should be looking at me."

Even before her cancer, she felt like an outsider. When she was 4, her parents, Trena, an aide in occupational therapy, and Desmond, a television news producer, and her four siblings emigrated from Ireland to suburban Spring Valley, N.Y. In the book she describes her family as "different"—her mother suffered from depression, a brother would receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, her parents had money troubles—and the subject remains a sensitive point. "We weren't a family that communicated at all," she says simply.

In fact, it was not until some years after 9-year-old Lucy had an operation to remove a tumor along with a good part of her jaw that she realized the illness she was calling Ewing's sarcoma had actually been cancer. Her parents, overwhelmed by their daughter's illness, became remote. Her mother sometimes reacted angrily when Lucy cried during the painful chemotherapy treatments, which for a time she underwent five days a week; and her father, who died of pancreatitis when Lucy was 15, could barely stand the sadness of visiting her in the hospital.

So Grealy retreated into her own world. The hospital was a place of comfort, and she avoided school—with its inevitable taunts of boys who said, "That is the ugliest girl I have ever seen"—as much as possible. Halloween, when she could wear a mask and look like all the other kids, became her favorite holiday.

At age 15, she began to have bone and tissue grafts to fill in her missing jaw. She pinned her hopes on every operation; but as each graft failed to take, she would again try to resign herself to a loveless life.

Through the discovery of both friends and poetry at Sarah Lawrence, where she enrolled in 1981, Grealy began emerging from her self-imposed isolation, though she continued to try to fix her face throughout these years. "The first time I ever noticed Lucy," remembers a good friend from college, Charlotte Snyder, "she was introducing a poetry reading. She was very impressive as a speaker, and I also thought she was very brave. She's always had phenomenal courage." And when Grealy entered the graduate writing program at the University of Iowa, she also discovered sex. In fact, she says, "I went through this promiscuous period as a way of proving that I was lovable."

After graduate school, Grealy went to Europe and tried to write. Short of money, she moved in with her older sister Suellen in London. It was Suellen who suggested plastic surgeon Oliver Fenton, in Scotland, and who paid her train fare to Aberdeen. Finally, at 28—after 2½ years of procedures, including a bone graft from her hip—her surgery was complete.

But her inner healing, which was aided by writing her book, continues. "It took me a long time," she explains, "to learn how to distinguish feeling ugly from sad. Being ugly was my savior in a strange way, because then I didn't have to wonder why I might actually feel insecure." Today Grealy says she is troubled by more ordinary emotions. She does not have a "committed relationship" at the moment and wishes she did; and the other day, she says, laughing, "I had my first pimple in years, and I was like, 'I can't go out in public.' " But go out in public she does, bravely showing her face to the world. "You should come to an understanding of what it means to be beautiful," she says, "and then go after those things—to be loved, to be successful in whatever way. Go after that rather than physical beauty."