Sunday, June 14, 2015
The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
Published May 2011 by Grand Central Publishing
Source: my paperback copy and audio copy were both bought and paid for
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
All of that happens within the first 20 pages of the book. I'm not sure I've ever read a summary that actually tells so little about what's going to happen going forward. After this point, the lives of Lynnie, Homan, and Martha veer apart for forty years and the book spends the next 320 pages following each of their separate journeys.
Lynnie, who is caught, is returned to a system which warehouses and abuses the people it is entrusted to care for. Lynnie is lucky enough to have an ally at the school in Kate, a woman who patiently and secretly sees to it that Lynnie is given a voice, both literally and through her art. Lynnie's way is made easier when first a reporter uncovers the problems at the school, thanks to a type from an anonymous source (Martha), and then she is reunited with the sister she hasn't seen in decades.
Human spends the next forty years finding a place where he can safely live his life, despite his inability to communicate with those around him. Homan hasn't used his voice in years, can't read either lips or print, and uses a sign language no one else understands. He spends forty years alone, saving money for a reason he doesn't even understand, and slowly forgetting Beatiful Girl and Little One (Lynnie and Julia).
Martha, convinced that the only way she can protect the baby entrusted to her care is to run, relies on the students she has stayed in touch with since her retirement. Only Eva, a former student who now runs a store with her husband, will know the full truth. Over the next decade Martha and Julia will travel from place to place, student to student, telling each a different story for how she comes to have a small child with her and moving on when she begins to feel unsafe or it is no longer possible to stay.
When Kate discovers that Lynnie has had a child while she was free, she is determined to find the child. When this leads her to Eva, she and Eva make a pact to tell Lynnie or Martha what is happening to the other only in case of an emergency. Kate is convinced that something terrible will happen to the baby if she is discovered and both feel the baby is safe with Martha's hands. It is the only thread that connects any of the characters during most of the rest of the book. And that was my problem with the book.
While each of the stories was, in and of itself, compelling, the focus often stayed so long on one character that I lost track (and feeling for) the other characters. I'm not sure how the book could have been structured differently and ended with the impact it did (and, despite my trouble having deep feelings throughout the book, it did have an impact), I only wish it had been done differently. I think I would have felt less emotionally manipulated and more emotionally attached to the characters.