Book Review: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
Martha, a retired, widowed schoolteacher, thought her life was pretty much over until one night when a young intellectually disabled white woman and a deaf black man show up on her doorstop in the rain holding a newborn baby. Soon people from a nearby mental institution show up to take them back away. The young woman, Linny, seems terrified and asks Martha to hide the baby. The man, Homan, escapes. Martha goes on the lam to keep the baby girl out of the institution, and Linny and Homan fight against all odds attempting to reunite their family.
I received the audiobook version of this as a gift for one of the holiday swaps I participated in in December. It was my first time reading the audiobook version of a modern story, as I’m a cheapskate and usually just get ones for free that are out of copyright. It was thus an entirely different experience to be forced to slow down when reading this piece of historic fiction about a very dark secret in American history–mental institutions. The amount of time that Linny and Homan are forced to spend simply waiting for their lives to get better. Waiting for people to recognize their humanity. It hit me much harder than if I had been able to read this in a couple of hours. (Each disc is about 1 hour long, and there are 10 discs). The wrongness of it all. The amount of time and lives wasted simply because the able-minded and able-bodied didn’t seek to understand or to grant these people the basic human right of self-direction.
The story itself is told from multiple viewpoints–Linny, Homan, Martha, Kate (a caregiver at the institution), and later Julia (the baby daughter when she grows up). Mostly Simon does a great job switching among the different voices, particularly representing Linny. She does not overinflate her internal dialogue to be that of a person with an average IQ, but she still clearly represents Linny’s humanity. I am a bit skeptical of the voice given to Homan though, mostly his tendency to give people bizarre nicknames like “roof giver.” I know that neither
Simon nor I know a deaf person who is unable to communicate with those around him, so really it is all guess-work as to what his internal dialogue would be like. But I can’t help but feel like it’s not quite there. On the other hand, his confusion and frustration at people talking around him, over him, and treating him like he’s stupid just because he’s deaf is very well done.
In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why so much time was devoted to Martha and Julia when Julia was a baby. Her story doesn’t end up being nearly as important as the Homan/Linny romance, so this focus feels a bit like a red herring. I would definitely shorten those chapters.
The use of artwork and items of visual significance to the characters is gorgeous though. Lighthouses are a central feature, and I don’t even like lighthouses myself, but I still found myself moved by how important the visual arts can be to people. This is a book that, surprisingly, winds up being almost a battle cry for the arts. For their value in helping us connect with each other and hold on to our humanity. I think any artist or someone who is a fan of the arts would appreciate this book for that reason.
On the other hand, Simon is clearly a person of some sort of faith, with a belief in god and the tendency for things to all work out right in the end. I’m…not that type of person. So when characters wax eloquent about god or an overall plan or the ability of evil people to repent and turn good, well, it all feels a bit more like fantasy than historic fiction to me. I probably would have been irritated by this less if I had had the ability to skim over those parts though.
In the end, though, I came away from this book appreciating its uniqueness and all the good qualities it had to offer. It demonstrates through a beautiful story why it’s so important not to institutionalize the mentally ill or mentally challenged. It shows the power of love to overcome race and disabilities. It is the story of the power and beauty of resiliency.
Overall, I recommend this work of historic fiction to fans of historic and contemporary fiction, advocates of the mentally ill or mentally challenged, and those just simply looking for a unique love story.
4 out of 5 stars