THE STORY OF A BEAUTIFUL GIRL by Rachel Simon

Book Quote:

“Martha could feel Lynnie’s breath warming her neck. She braced herself for the one word Lynnie knew, the one Martha had already heard. The one that meant defiance.

‘Hide,’ came Lynnie’s whisper.

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman AUG 28, 2011)

A generation ago, Geraldo Rivera shocked the nation by exposing the horrendous living conditions at the infamous Willowbrook School — a state-supported institution for children with mental retardation. Now, Rachel Simon creates a fictional rendition of this heartbreaking subject of vulnerable individuals locked in institutions out of sight of society.

Merging the elements of a love story, social commentary, and suspense narrative, The Story of Beautiful Girl focuses on two unlikely lovers. Lynnie Goldberg is a beautiful, mentally challenged, resident at the notorious Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded…and Number 42 – aka Homan – a deaf black man who is her one true friend.

In dramatic fashion, we meet these mismatched lovers on a stormy night, immediately following their escape from the institution. They seek refuge at the remote home of Martha Zimmer, a retired and widowed teacher who is living her days in self-imposed exile. In a short time span, a secret is unveiled: Lynnie has just given birth to a little girl whom she desperately wants to hide from the authorities.

Eventually – and we learn this quickly – Lynnie is apprehended and sent back to the filthy and corrupt institution, while Homan escapes. Before being whisked away, Lynnie’s last words to Martha are, “Hide her.” In the meantime, Martha has prevailed on former students to provide shelter for the baby – named Julia – and herself.

From here, the plot unfolds with heart-wrenching moments as Lynnie yearns for Homan’s return and he wonders whether he will ever set eyes on the Beautiful Girl again. The plot twists address age-old questions that are typical of this genre: will Lynnie and Homan eventually get back together? Will they ever reunite with baby Julia and will she ever know the truth of her identity? The three characters follow different growth paths: Martha blossoms and finds meaning in her embracing of accidental motherhood, Lynnie moves forward from a frightened young woman to one who is able to exhibit extraordinary acts of courage, and Homan demonstrates his tenacity in the face of challenge. As their lives continue in parallel, they are all nurtured by their memories of their stolen time and their dreams for their daughter.

The story plays out over four decades – starting in 1968 — and encompasses issues that must be all too familiar with those in the field: the dehumanizing conditions that residents find themselves in, the value of dedicated professionals who defy the system, the budding of romance an self-expression even in the worst of conditions. Informed by her personal experience with her own sister, Rachel Simon expresses empathy for the plight of Lynnie and Homan and those who have been shuffled away into uncaring institutions by an ignorant society.

The Story of a Beautiful Girl raises important questions: how does society deal with those they regard as “feeble-minded?” How do we really deal with those whose challenges do not mirror our own? That is not to say that this book is without its flaws. Some of the plot twists defy belief. For example, it is hard to envision a slender girl who is able to hide her pregnancy for nine months while under near-constant surveillance. The thought processes attributed to Lynnie and Homan don’t always merge with the characters they are meant to be. And, in many cases, I felt that the writing style straddled that fine line between adult and YA fiction.

Still, I commend the author for her accomplishment. With just a little bit of research, I discovered there are still 162 state institutions that house an average daily population of over 33,000 people, most with inadequate funding. Just days before I read The Story of a Beautiful Girl, there was an expose on the front page of the Sunday New York Times about a resident who died after repeated abuse. Based on its newsworthiness and unique love story, I suspect this book will continue to garner its share of enthusiastic fans.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 260 readers
PUBLISHER: Grand Central Publishing; 1 edition (May 4, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Rachel Simon
EXTRAS: Book website and Excerpt
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August 28, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Contemporary, Theme driven

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