About a year ago I had the good fortune to read Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty, a book about her late best friend, the poet Lucy Grealy. It was a beautifully written testament to their friendship, which began in college and continued for approximately twenty years, until 2002 when Lucy died of what was ruled an accidental drug overdose. The book left me wanting to know more about Lucy Grealy and so I recently picked up her memoir, Autobiography of a Face.
Grealy started out her life pretty much on an even playing field with everyone else around her: nice kid, smart, pretty and well-liked, nice family. When she was four years old, she and her family, which included a twin sister and two older brothers, arrived in the United States from Ireland. Her journalist father had been offered a good position with a major US network and they set forth to live out the American dream in New York. And that's how things went for the first few years.
When Lucy was nine, she was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a highly malignant bone cancer that had settled in her jaw. Over her life, she endured numerous surgeries, chemotherapy, and experimental treatments. The operations left her with half of her jaw, resulting in several attempts at reconstructive surgery. She struggled with the disease and the severe pain and ridicule that she endured. Eventually, though, she came to see herself as unique. While the difference "wasn't always comfortable for me, it nonetheless further defined me. Most people struggle all their lives to avoid fading unnoticed into the crowd, but this was never my concern. I was special. Being different was my cross to bear, but being aware of it was my compensation."
Grealy tried throughout her life to manage not just the disease and its physical and emotional ramifications, but to find the right attitude to get her through the day. Who would play with her on the school playground, who would invite her to a dance, who would love her? It was not until she reached her college years at Sarah Lawrence that Grealy finally meets people who appreciate her great friendship, her talent as a poet and writer and her natural leadership abilities.
While Grealy's memoir may be read purely as an account of her disease and its progression, her book is first and foremost a strong and beautiful piece of writing that deals with finding her place in a world that has judged her solely on her outward appearance. This memoir describes how she coped, how she fought to fit into the society around her and finally how she lived outside of it.
Lucy Grealy was an award-winning poet who was 39 when she died. She lived in the UK and Germany but principally in New York. In addition to Autobiography of a Face, she published a collection of essays entitled As Seen on TV: Provocations.
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