"The Story of Beautiful Girl" written by Rachel Simon, the author of "Riding the Bus with My Sister" tells the story of Lynnie, a beautiful, young white woman with developmental disabilities and Homan, a deaf black man, better known as Number Forty-two to the guards at the Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. On a cold, rainy night in November 1968, Lynnie and Homan recently escaped from the school, arrive at the doorstep of Martha Zimmer, a widowed retired schoolteacher. At first apprehensive to allow the strange pair into her home, Martha takes pity on the desperate couple and shows them all the compassion they've been lacking in their life. Martha quickly realizes they are in fact not alone, they have a newborn baby with them. Unfortunately, shortly after their arrival at Martha's home, the authorities from the school track them down, and while Homan escapes into the night, Lynnie is sadly captured and taken into custody to be returned to the school. As Martha observes the silent Lynnie, she takes in the beautiful green eyes and curly golden hair, and despite the claims by the cruel guard that she's an idiot, Martha senses otherwise. As Lynnie is goaded into thanking Martha for her kindness, she leans in and whispers into Martha's ear two simple words, "hide her," for she knows the doctor and guards are oblivious to the presence of the baby girl that she and Homan had tenderly placed in the widow's attic just minutes before the guards arrival. As Lynnie is ushered away, Martha says "Lynnie, I will," and with that vow so begins the saga that spans forty plus years, which follows the life of Lynnie, Homan, Martha and baby Julia.
As the story progresses, we learn of Lynnie's story and how at the young age of eight she had been separated from her beloved Nah-nah (Hannah), her sister, and left by her parents at the school. We meet her friend Kate, an attendant at the school, and the only staff member to show Lynnie kindness and believe that she isn't as limited as the school believes. For years, Kate had nurtured Lynnie's artistic talent by giving her the supplies to draw as well as hiding those drawings from other school staff, and it's through her drawings that Lynnie communicates the events of that fateful night to Kate, who keeps Lynnie's secret. Through it all, we read of Martha's steps to fulfill her promise to Lynnie, and how she relies on a network of past students to help her both hide Julia, as well as raise her.
I really enjoyed the story, it was beautiful and touching. The story arc is slightly unrealistic, though I guess not any more so than any of the romance novels I read. The novel is structured so that each chapter focuses on one individual's life during a specific year. The story begins with the widow in 1968 and ends with Julia in 2011. One downside to the novel was that given the large span of time covered, there were understandably quite a few gaps in time in the story. For example, we read about Martha in 1973 but her next chapter picks up with her and Julia's story in 1983. When I think about it though, I guess my one complaint is a compliment in disguise, because it speaks to the fact that the story and the characters were compelling enough to make me want to know more about each of their lives.
Lastly, an interesting feature of the storyline was the incorporation of the real media awakening which took place in the early 1970's to the horrors taking place in institutions like the fictional one featured in the novel. As noted in Ms. Simon's author's note, it was 1972 when Geraldo Rivera aired a horrifying story on the atrocities taking place at Willowbrook State School. The novel does well in covering how far we, as a society, have come in our treatment of people with developmental and mental disabilities and the care offered in institutions, though sadly, in many countries some of these iniquities still take place.