TRUTH & BEAUTY: A Friendship *

By Ann Patchett

HarperCollins. 257 pp. $23.95

When she sold her first novel, Ann Patchett's first phone calls were to her best friends, "because what good is news without girlfriends?" The women in question were writers themselves, but literary jealousy did not prevent them from exulting in her good fortune. What's most surprising about Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, Patchett's first book of nonfiction, is that a book about writers could be so sweet. These may be the best-natured, most loyal and generous, most optimistic writers ever to have their humble beginnings recounted in a memoir.

Or at least Patchett herself is. Lucy Grealy, her best friend, had ample reason for a darker side. In her own memoir, Autobiography of a Face, Grealy documented her battle with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare cancer that caused her to lose part of her jaw as a child and undergo endless painful (and ultimately unsuccessful) surgeries for the disfigurement. Grealy died in 2002, at age 39, of a heroin overdose. Truth & Beauty is Patchett's tribute to Grealy, at once a grief-haunted eulogy and a larger meditation on the solace -- and limitations -- of friendship.

Patchett and Grealy were best friends from the moment they became roommates at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1981. They shared a depressing apartment, bought spaghetti with their last pooled pennies and got smashed at local bars, where they talked deep into the night about "King Lear" and, of course, sex. "Iowa City in the eighties was never going to be Paris in the twenties," Patchett writes, "but we gave it our best shot."

If it weren't for Grealy's inability to eat as most of us do -- she couldn't chew because she had lost most of her teeth to the cancer -- she could have been any coed, wondering aloud if she'd ever find a good man. Patchett and Grealy were committed to being artists -- "We were all going to be something big, something important" -- but they still managed to spend immense chunks of time bemoaning their love lives. Anyone who has read excerpts from Sylvia Plath's diaries will be familiar with this goofy balance of ambition and flat-out boy-craziness.

The nature of the unlikely friendship, too, will strike a chord with many readers. Patchett, the hick from Tennessee, was even-keeled, reliable, punctual, a neat-freak. Manhattan club-hopper Grealy was the drama queen: extravagant, adventuresome but also occasionally gloomy, needy, possessive. "We were a pairing out of an Aesop's fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare. . . . Grasshoppers and hares find the ants and the tortoises. They need us to survive, but we need them as well. They were the ones who brought the truth and beauty to the party, which Lucy could tell you as she recited her Keats over breakfast, was better than food any day."

Patchett traces Grealy's grim deterioration without sentimentality. The most interesting sections of Truth & Beauty confront that old subject, the relationship of suffering to art. Grealy, Patchett says, did not relish being the brave poster child for cancer survival. Among the letters from Grealy included in the book are two spectacular ones -- about Primo Levi's memoir Survival at Auschwitz and about Jean-Michel Basquiat's paintings -- that reveal the depth of her intellect.

From Patchett's challenging fiction, we know that she must have matched Grealy insight for insight. But Patchett does not include her own letters here. And although Patchett, a nurse's daughter, was always there for Grealy -- fetching her Krispy Kreme donuts, sorting and paying her bills, literally carrying her home from the hospital -- there's no bragging about her selflessness. She portrays herself as merely one link in the sturdy chain of her charismatic friend's support system, which included novelist Elizabeth McCracken and poet Lucie Brock-Broido.

Indeed, if anything, Truth & Beauty is a little too modest about dwelling on the author's artistic trajectory and inner life. "Sometimes," Patchett muses, "I worried that Lucy saw me as the ant I was, unglamorous, toiling." At one desperate point, with Grealy woefully late on a book contract, Patchett offers, "You know, pet, I could write it for you. . . . We wouldn't have to tell anyone." Who wouldn't want to be the fly on the wall at the therapy sessions where the novelist hashed out that complex symbiosis? But this memoir, dedicated to Grealy, is more love letter than autobiography. No reader will doubt the sincerity, or ferocity, of the love. *

Lisa Zeidner is the author of four novels, most recently "Layover." She is a professor of English at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.