The Story of Beautiful Girl
In her bestselling 2002 memoir, RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, Rachel Simon introduced readers to the challenges, heartaches and rewards of having a family member with a developmental disability. At the same time, she showed us the complexity and often misunderstood nature of disability, factors that may be unfamiliar to the general public but are well known to Simon, who grew up with a developmentally disabled sister. Her family history also informs and inspires her new novel, THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL, set at a time in recent American history when attitudes toward disability were only just beginning to change.
The book begins in dramatic fashion, as Martha, an older woman who's a widowed retired teacher, opens her door to two bedraggled wanderers. The man is black, the woman is white. Both are wrapped in makeshift blankets composed of old signs, and neither one can speak. They harbor a great love for each other, as well as a dangerous secret --- the baby to which the woman (named Lynnie, we later learn) has just given birth. Lynnie (a developmentally disabled young woman who has voluntarily stopped speaking) and Homan (known to Lynnie as Buddy, but to most only as Number 42) are on the run from the nearby School for the Incurable and Feebleminded.
The year is 1968, and most Americans are convinced that institutionalization, rather than education, social services, or humaneness, is the only reasonable response to individuals like Lynnie and Homan. But what an institution they've fled --- a place that's unimaginably filthy and corrupt, where residents are routinely restrained, punished and terrorized by the guards, where friendship and compassion are all too hard to find. Desperate to find a better life for her baby, Lynnie throws herself on Martha's mercy, leaving her daughter with this quiet, trustworthy woman just before she is captured and returned to the School.
Homan continues his escape, but the two --- neither of whom can tell their story --- remain separated for nearly 40 years. As their lives continue in parallel, as their memories of that stolen time together and their hopes for their absent daughter continue to flourish, Homan and Lynnie prove to the world --- and to themselves --- exactly what they're capable of.
THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL has a personal angle and a political agenda, to be sure --- just one glimpse at the descriptions of the so-called School and a glance at the author's note, and readers will grow outraged by the atrocities that actually happened not so very long ago. Even more important, however, is the way in which Simon utilizes the inner monologues of Lynnie and Homan to enhance their humanity in a much-needed and too-rare way. Seeing inside their heads, coming to know them as thinking and hurting and loving people, comes far closer to knowing the disabled and empathizing with them than most readers ever would on their own.
Crafting a sweeping, decades-long love story between two such characters does as much for raising awareness and enhancing compassion as any exposé ever could.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 24, 2011
The Story of Beautiful Girl
- Publication Date: May 4, 2011
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 0446574465
- ISBN-13: 9780446574464