Pale, sparrow-weight poet Lucy Grealy hurtles off the opening pages of Truth & Beauty like a meteorological force, pitching her 95 lbs. into the startled author's arms as they first meet in a dumpy Iowa duplex to begin life as grad-school roommates. "It was not a greeting as much as it was a claim," Patchett recalls. "She was staking out this spot on my chest as her own."
Grealy, who died of a drug overdose in '02, is brilliant and wild, a formidable talent and a dancer on tavern tables. Childhood cancer has left her with little jaw, few teeth and a poignant frailty (all documented in her own 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face). Patchett (author of Bel Canto) is hale enough to help carry this tornado of a friend for the next 20 years, across the heights and chasms of Grealy's writing career, romances and excruciating reconstructive surgeries.
Patchett's piquant remembrances—"It is amazingly easy to hail a taxi with a girl in your arms," she writes of ferrying Grealy after her 36th surgery—alternate with Grealy's own sometimes despondent, sometimes exuberant letters. "My favorite blue awning above some great little cafe," Grealy calls Patchett in one, "where the coffee is strong but milky and had real texture to it."
This is a loving testament to the work and reward of the best friendships, the kind where your arms can't distinguish burden from embrace.