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Thursday, July 7, 2011

"The Story of Beautiful Girl" ~Chilling Love Story and Commentary on Asylums

Grand Central Pubishing
Hardcover:  346 ppgs.

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.

Author:  Rachel Simon
In addition to being an author of substance and renown, Ms Simon is an advocate of such organizations as:
AAIDD: The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.  She speaks at rallies, as seen below, on Capital Hill in support of those with developmental disabilities, and the awareness of programs and special education for them.  In this photo, you can see the topic is "community and opportunity." 

The Book Trailer:

My Review:
"...Beautiful Girl" is an unusual novel in that it demands a suspension of believe for the story to progress; while it urges us to believe in the horrors of the days when families hid their disabled children away from society and themselves, it also wants us to feel the angst of a love story. Ms Simon does a good job of writing a book that "works" for the most part, and which draws us into the characters of her book, as well as the unconscionable insiders and innerworkings of a torture camp for the misbegotten.

This is the chilling story of a couple of lost, "thrown-away" residents of an institution who are shifted off on an anonymous asylum, forgotten, and helpless in a world that is frightening and unpredictable.  Their lives have been stolen from them...they are incarcerated in a holding place of horrors, daily punishments are meted out to them and there is no apparent way out. The couple are lost or rejected and "dead" to parents and other family members, so they come to cherish the connection and love they've forged with each other.

The main characters of the asylum, Homan, a deaf man whom no one understands; and Lynnie, a young woman unable to speak fluently; fall in love and eventually escape the asylum.  Lynnie is pregnant, she gives birth enroute, and the couple finds shelter at a home with a lighthouse carving on the mailbox.  This lighthouse signals a familiarity with "home" to Lynnie who cannot articulate or remember where she came from. 

The story follows Lynnie, Homan, their baby girl, as well as Martha, the brave woman who takes the baby under her protection when Lynnie asks her to take care of her as the authorities straight jacket her and take her back to the prison of the asylum.  Homan, at the same time, escapes the police and abusive asylum guards, running for his life in order to come back another day to rescue Lynnie and the baby.  

There are twists and turns that pace "The Story of Beautiful Girl" and tell us of the plight of these people. Their lives lack real sympathy, support and understanding for the greatest part.  They are the lost and forgotten, the ones not capable of defending themselves, and the ones we cry for in pity for their entrapments. Were it not for the rare few who saw them as valuable human beings with meaning and creative abilities, they would surely have been victims of corrupt, self-serving people until they died.

The view we have of Lynnie's and Homan's love story is moving.  Their devotion to each other despite their inability to "talk" in conventional ways was touching and heartwarming.  Though both have lost their "voices," they communicate from the heart with spirits that unite them over 40 years.  I was moved, as well, by the personal sacrifices that Martha made in her devotion to Lynnie and the baby she came to love.

What falls short to me in this special novel is that it wants to be two things at once, and the author's attempts to blend both was not wholly successful.  The book dragged in parts and it often skipped details without links from one person to another,  leaving gaps in the flow of the story. Perhaps we weren't meant to form an attachment to the child, but I think it may have tied the story together better had we known who she was and how she may have reflected the best of all the characters.  Somehow, the story fell short for me because of these components. 

What I did find most interesting and vital in the novel were the insights into the asylum and its characters.  They were fierce and enlisted stong feelings from me.  I was shocked by the abusive, inhumane conditions, the roadblocks that even those who wanted to help the inmates feared, and the ungodly disregard for human life.  Here was the meat of this novel, I felt--a story that held rich and horrific descriptions of a prison-like facility for the pitiful, demanding we look at the unseen. It begged this recognition, because with awareness comes curiosity and with more curiosity, many might become involved.  This, then, was the most powerful part of Ms Simon's book.

All in all, I really liked "The Story of Beautiful Girl," sans the stated issues above.  Ms Simon is a writer of great talent and devotion to social issues.  Her book is commendable and worthy of support...certainly worthy of  reading. 

I simply feel responsible to tell you that the book is not your typical love story.  It's rather a novel of exposure and indictment of a society that felt it was good to hide away the disabled and those with imperfections.  It's the story of two heart who survive through love.  And, the dedication of one woman, past her prime, whose life becomes one of love and devotion.  Happily, there is redemption  for all in the end.  Hopefully, we have progressed as a society since the days this novel takes place.  But, I'm not sure we have...

I recommend "The Story of Beautiful Girl" as long as my readers realize it's not just a love story.

4 stars




This sounds like a very disturbing book, but interesting in a way. Actually, at one time there were institutions were people could "throw away" their disabled children. Remember the big Willowbrook expose by Geraldo Rivera. I have also just read a book about a boy who was institutionalized and will be posting about it soon.
Thanks for this review.

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