Must-Read: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

12 Oct

How is it possible that not long ago in this country the deaf were considered “feebleminded?” Or that those we now consider developmentally delayed or mentally challenged were institutionalized in facilities that employed people more like prison guards than caretakers? How is it that these people were treated so poorly, not so long ago, and considered so much less deserving of personhood to be denied the simple right to love? Rachel Simon’s novel The Story of Beautiful Girl not only asks these questions, it asks much smaller ones too. Ones about love and parenthood and loyalty and promises.

It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl. When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: Hide her. And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia-lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that this book had on me. Not only is the opening scene of the book captivating – Simon sets the tone of the book beautifully – but the suspense factor of the book completely sucks you in – will this family ever be reunited? It’s a question that drives you through the story, as it takes turns you don’t expect and travels decades beyond the moment of surrender in Martha’s farmhouse. Under the surface, there’s always this force propelling you to the end; that not knowing gives the novel more suspense than many traditional thrillers or crime novels. Because in those genres, the expectation is usually that the story ends well, the good guy triumphs, and the bad guy loses. But The Story of Beautiful Girl doesn’t have a good guy or a bad guy and because it’s literary fiction, there’s absolutely no guarantee there will be a happy ending – or even an ending that wraps up neatly. So you keep turning pages hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Each of the characters could easily become one-dimensional, particularly Lynnie and Homan, who are defined by the world in terms limited to their disabilities. But Simon deftly transfers the narrative point of view and gives each character an equal part in telling the story. And because we get first person POV from every major character, not only does the story come together in a really rich way, the narrators are deeply wrought and complex in their actions and emotional portrayal. My heart broke for Lynnie and Homan – and Julia. Like, I had my hand on my chest at points, holding my breathe, waiting for something good or something bad.

Beyond the emotional factor, the social commentary behind the novel is astounding. And that’s the part, I think, that has stayed with me most. The voices of the characters are fantastic, but the time and situation they are forced to cope with – no, not cope with – survive is harrowing. I knew that our country’s history of institutionalization was not good (understatement of the century), but I don’t think I really grasped what it was like, looking from the inside out. It was scary, plain and simple. Simon has some clout when it comes to the subject matter: she wrote a memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True Life Journey, about her mentally handicapped sister’s struggle with every day life. Lynnie’s voice – perhaps because of Simon’s personal experience – is nothing if not authentic. I really believed her narrative, and that belief lent weight and legitimacy to the rest of the story. (As as side note, I also loved, loved Kate’s voice as well. She’s an employee of the institution where Homan and Lynnie escape from, and I was rooting her on in her mission to end the injustices put upon the “inmates.”)

Lest you think me nothing but a fan girl, I had just a few issues with the book, namely in terms of the plot staying on track. There are a few places, particularly later in the timeline, that I felt the plot went off kilter and I wasn’t sure entirely how the jaunt related to the larger story. Also some of the timing, particularly with ages, threw me a little. But none of these concerns were enough to dissuade my adoration for the book by the time I was done.

As a final note, one of the themes that carried throughout the book was that of storytelling and books. I loved this quote in particular:

A book wasn’t something you could open anywhere and then flip to anywhere else. You opened it at the front and went forward, and the pages went from one to the next, each adding to the last, and the story grew more exciting with each page. It was like the way corn grew from the seed that got planted in spring to the tall rows you hid inside in the fall. A story grew.

Highly recommended.

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3 Responses to “Must-Read: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon”

  1. Rachel Simon October 12, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    This is such an insightful, thoughtful review. I am very grateful.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Anna Karenina + Friday Wrap-Up « a home between pages - October 15, 2011

    […] terms of what’s been going on here, in case you missed it, I posted a review of The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon, announced my intention to read-a-thon for charity again this year, and then […]

  2. The Story of Beautiful Girl « Ann Stanley - January 2, 2012

    […] Must-Read: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon (homebetweenpages.com) […]

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