The Story of Beautiful Girl
- Rachel Simon
- Grand Central Publishing
- 340 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Green
- June 15, 2011
In this fairy-tale-like novel, two mental hospital patients find that love triumphs over years of mistreatment and forced separation.
Reviewed by Susan M. Green
You wouldn’t know from its title that The Story of Beautiful Girl actually is a tale about a girl with mental retardation and a young man who is deaf. The girl in this story, Lynnie, gives birth to a baby she is forced to abandon when she and her lover, Homan, are torn apart by a malevolent psychiatrist. In a dramatic scene, Homan escapes into the woods while Lynnie, in a straitjacket, is forcibly returned to the mental hospital from which she and Homan had fled. The hours-old infant is adopted by an elderly widow. Lynnie and Homan’s improbable relationship persists despite the couple’s forty-year separation.
The story goes on in a manner familiar to readers of classic fairy tales. One chapter is entitled “Inside Cinderella’s Coach.” Just as in the world of make-believe, coincidences abound in this novel. A lighthouse figurine marks the lovers’ refuge, while a full-size lighthouse just happens to play an important role forty years later. Homan visits a community center where, unbeknownst to him, a long-lost friend is working.
Rachel Simon is well known for Riding the Bus with My Sister, her best-selling memoir about growing up with a mentally retarded sibling, which subsequently was adapted for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. Given that history, you might expect the novel to focus on the girl of the title, and, indeed, we learn a good deal about the events of Lynnie’s life: her earliest years at home with her family; her mother’s reluctant agreement to let Lynnie’s father send her to the State School; and the horrific conditions in the institution that cause her to lose all her words except “no.” Unfortunately, the author tells us about these dramatic events rather than showing Lynnie as she experiences them, thereby diminishing their potential effect on the reader.
Homan, by contrast, is a much more vivid character. He lost his hearing during a childhood illness before he learned to read and write. Born somewhere in the segregated South, he fled his home after a run-in with white bullies and ended up at the State School after being arrested for vagrancy. And, while he was taught to sign as a young boy, his dialect is unfamiliar to those he meets as an adult. Thus he cannot communicate in any conventional fashion. The institution’s staff calls him “Number Forty-two,” because he is the forty-second John Doe caught in “the system.” No one knows his real name, but to Lynnie he is “Buddy.”
But Homan is neither voiceless nor a nonentity. Stripped of his identity along with the standard communication tools, he is forced to develop his own image-based language. The institution becomes the “Snare of the Stone Walls,” Lynnie is “Beautiful Girl” and the constellations he shows her are “Cup,” “Pony,” and “Feather.” His words are simple but evocative. The reader experiences the world along with Homan and understands him when no one else can. He is the most interesting character in the book.
Where Lynnie is concerned, the book is faithful to its title: the story tells a tale of a beautiful girl with a disability. But Rachel Simon has a loftier goal, as the book’s dedication makes clear: she writes to give voice “to those who were put away.” The Author’s Note explains that Homan was based on a real-life “John Doe No. 24,” a deaf African-American man consigned to life and death in an institution because he could not speak. Simon movingly presents the horrors of the state mental hospital system. Homan’s literal incarceration adds insult to his metaphorical isolation; Lynnie’s experience makes a mockery of the institution’s “School” moniker. The institution’s residents live far more happily and productively in the placements that follow their release.
This story, while optimistic, omits the controversy surrounding deinstitutionalization and the painful outcomes that often have resulted. Substance abuse, homelessness and violence frequently – tragically – afflict people with mental disabilities. Happy endings in community- supported living arrangements are all too often the exception. Had Simon chosen to present both sides of this story, The Story of Beautiful Girl might have been a more realistic work. Instead the novel offers social commentary in the guise of a fairy tale. But the fact that these two genres coexist uneasily at times does not minimize Simon’s achievement: she has created memorable characters who exemplify the time-honored theme of triumphant love. That should constitute success in anyone’s book.
Susan Green, a lawyer representing working people and their unions, served as Chief Labor Counsel to Senator Edward M. Kennedy from 1996-99. She writes Congressional testimony, speeches, op-eds, and book reviews.