Ann Patchett — My Brand-New Favorite Author

Two flowers, one thriving, one not remind me of Ann Patchett and her friend Lucy. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Ann Patchett, Lucy Grealy — two writers, two temperaments, dear friends. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I’ve got a new favorite author. Ann Patchett. Step aside Marilynne Robinson and Annie Dillard, Leo Tolstoy and Richard Ford. You, too, Philip Roth and Karen Armstrong.

I’ve just finished Ann Patchett’s searing 2005 memoir “Truth and Beauty” about Patchett’s deep and painful friendship with Lucy Grealy, the author of “Autobiography of a Face.” I want more, more, more of Patchett. She’s an astute author, who, I suspect, if I could meet her in person, would be a kindred spirit.

Cover of audio book version of Ann Patchett's "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.'

I had a feeling about Patchett a few months ago after I finished her 2013 memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s  a book about an actually happy marriage and life. Really — Patchett achieves the impossible in this book, and that is (if you can believe most every creative writing book ever written) she writes a story that is short on tension.

Patchett — Contented Memoirist

It’s the story of a person, Patchett, who is actually content with herself at the get-go. No childhood abuse. No struggles with addiction, no life threatening illness, no poverty. Just a Catholic school girl who manages to find her way into a successful life as a wife, bookstore owner, friend of many, and author of such best-sellers as “Commonwealth” and “Bel Canto.”

Maybe you have read Lucy Grealy’s  memoir, “Autobiography of a Face.” I haven’t, though I’ve intended to ever since it came out in 1994. It describes Grealy’s struggles with identity and a face partially disfigured by cancer as an adolescent.

Patchett and Grealy were contemporaries at Sarah Lawrence College and went on to become roommates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A profoundly emotional intellectual friendship ensued, which persisted during the two women’s slow, then sudden, rise to publication and critical success.

The charm, and ultimately the pain, of their friendship lies in Grealy’s outrageous, in-your-face  personality thrown up against Patchett’s thoughtful, straight-arrow, Southern restraint.

Life Without Lucy Grealy

The friendship ends tragically when Grealy’s dies at age 39 of a probable heroin overdose and Pachett is left to lead the rest of her life in the company of family and friends — but without her “Pettest Pet,” her soulmate Lucy.

Patchett is a consummate storyteller. Her economical, unstinting, often droll writing is as good as it as it gets. As a reader I’m going to be grateful for these two wonderful reads. As a writer, I plan to study them to figure out how the heck she does it.

If you’re a recorded book reader, btw, add Pachett’s reading of “Truth and Beauty” and “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” to your must-listen list.

Full disclosure: One of Lucy Grealy’s sisters was not at all happy with Patchett’s book and her portrayal of Lucy. Here’s what she had to say. Writing memoir is risky business, which is why, maybe, the novel was invented — to provide a little deniability to everyone involved, writer and writee alike.

More thoughts on books at “Jesus Was a Loser. Does That Make Trump a Winner?  Also at, “Do Books Have Rights? This One Didn’t. I Threw It in the Trash.”

detail of cover of Ann Patchett's audio book "Truth and Beauty."

From the audiobook cover of “Truth and Beauty.”

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