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Don't be fooled by the cover, this is a deep and meaningful book and it touches on MANY contemporary issues: how society views the disabled, old age, motherhood, racial prejudices.
I actually do not wish to disclose any of the plot but although very sad at times, this ultimately is an uplifting book, full of perseverance, optimism and hope. It does more than that, it restores your faith in the human race.
The book is extremely well-written and Rachel Simon's language is eloquent and moving. Her descriptions are evocative and will get to know her characters and understand their life journey.
The action speeds up in the last 2 or three chapters and will keep you turning the pages until you reach an unexpected but most satisfying denouement.
I will be loooking out for Rachel Simon's next book as I was so impressed with this one. This lady is a fine writer. If you like Anita Shrieve or Anne Tyler, give Rachel Simon a try!
Martha's life is changed forever by a knock on her door one stormy night. She opens the door to find Lynnie and Homan standing there looking for refuge. They have escaped from the school for the incurable and feeble minded and Lynnie had given birth while on the run. The authorities soon catch up with the pair and haul Lynnie back to the institution while Homan manages to escape. Lynnie has hidden her baby and begs the retiree to take care of her fearing the baby will end up having the type of life she has had. "The Story of Beautiful Girl" follows their lives from that night in 1968 for a period of 40 years.
This is a novel which looks at the treatment of those with learning disabilities and how society treats them. In the 1960s it was common for families to be told to place their children in institutions and forget about them. The treatment of the inmates of these asylums was often brutal and they had no voice and no rights and, in the case of Homan who was known as number 42, no name. The story of Lynnie from childhood and how she was placed in the institution was a really interesting one and makes you realise how much society has changed.
Lynnie and Homan as characters just did not work for me. Lynnie is meant to be profoundly disabled to the point she does not speak yet in her chapters she talks like an intelligent young woman. Homan seemed rather pointless to me and I just did not believe in his character or care much what he was doing. His back story was interesting, an African American who was placed in an asylum simply because he was deaf and did not communicate in American sign language and I think the author was attempting to draw him like Chief Bromden from "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" but this did not work well.
As well as the characters not working the story was simply not believable. When Lynnie is returned to the institution her nurse Kate notices she has given birth as she notices the changes in her body when she supervises her bathing. Would she really have been able to hide a pregnancy for nine months in an institution? I know some women have tiny bumps when pregnant but surely other changes would have been noticed. Would she really have been physically able to run away while she is on the verge of giving birth and then continue to flee immediately once the baby was born? Martha conveniently had baby clothes and formula in her cottage and a network of people willing to hide her and an infant including falsifying a birth certificate which just seemed too convenient for my liking.
If you are willing to suspend feelings of disbelief in the story then there are some parts of the book which are really well and compassionately written. I enjoyed learning about Lynnie's family history and how her life developed over the years. I also found Martha to be a convincing character and was interested in her life.
Rachel Simon has a sister with a learning disability and it was her aim to tell the story of those who were placed into institutions and forgotten. She has succeeded in this aim but overall as a novel it doesn't work for me.
It's rare, isn't it, that you read a book and, once the last page is turned find yourself thinking about it long after the tale is done, but don't you find that, once in a while, a book leaves you feeling that way? Sometimes not often, a book can touch me so much that I can't wait to tell others about it, such is "The Story of Beautiful Girl" which the most different and memorable novel I have read for a while.
The book tells a the story of Lynnie, an inmate at the "The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded", who escapes one night as she knows she has to find somewhere safe for the baby to whom she is about to give birth. The book spans 40 years, from 1968 up to the near present, and has a cast of memorable characters, from Homan the deaf gentle giant, to Martha the elderly teacher who takes in the newborn and feels compelled to follow Lynnie's whispered instruction "hide her". There is Kate one of the carers at the institution who shows the inmates compassion and also the less kindly - those who staff the school which is an institution where the residents are deprived of basic rights, such as owning their own possessions, and who believe them devoid of all humanity. Homan isn't even known by his name, but a number. As the book opens as Lynnie leaves her baby with a stranger, the question is, what will the future hold for everyone who is connected to the child? This book provides the answers.
Though fictional, I found that this book resonated with me in a way that surprised me. Perhaps because, from my own life experience, as being born exactly when the book starts, I know that the way we treat those with special needs has changed hugely in my lifetime and so I found the story this book told particularly compelling. Institutions such as the one where the book is set in America were far from non-existent in this country in the 1970's. My dad, a GP, was the designated doctor for the one in our local town and used to tell a tale or two about how the residents were treated, segregated from the locals in their huge buildings, with there being only 1 carer to 41 "patients" at times*. Even today this same place is freely called the "Lunatic Asylum" on the very first page of google results, and hasn't quite lost the stigma that surrounded it, though the residents have long moved on to less institution-like places I hope. The characters in this book too move on as the story progresses and their circumstances change. "The Story of Beautiful Girl", in some ways is a form of advocacy for those in society who are wrongly labelled as disabled first and people second; that's not to say it's a political work, above all it's a darn good story with interesting and believable characters.
This novel, despite having some difficult topics, as I have suggested, had the air of a Fairy Story in some ways, and kept me reading into the small wee hours. Though I did struggle a little with the ending of the book, which was perhaps its weakest part as being rather contrived, I still loved this book and it will live with me for a long time. It really made me think and re-examine my perceptions of others in society as well as my own experiences growing up in the 1970's, when those with special needs didn't seem to have any rights at all.
The way that Lynnie and Homan, the two protagonists and residents of the "School" were shown worked on every level for me - I had no problems at all seeing the world through their eyes as portrayed by the author whose own personal experience does equip her well to show how those who may not be able to express themselves as easily as she does, might think and feel. A little suspension of belief was required at times to imagine that Lynnie thought as logically as she did in the story; my heart broke a bit too imagining the child Lynnie being left at the school by her parents, facing never being visited again or being with her beloved sister, and I deeply wanted everything to work out for Lynnie in the end. That I cared so much speaks volumes about the author's achievement here in writing a novel that is no pity-fest but is filled with life, love and hope.
Though firmly set in America, in a time when a BBC panorama programme has revealed that the times of treating those with disabilities in an unacceptable way are not as far behind us as we would like to think, I think this novel has a message that is relevant, interesting and deserves to be heard. Beyond that, this book is a compelling and enjoyable read; and despite its slight flaws I can only give it 5 stars, it deserves nothing less. A highly recommended read.
I received the book as part of the Vine programme, a shorter version of this review appears on the amazon site
*source: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/ 1973/nov/06/lea-castle-hospital-patients-death