The Story of Beautiful Girl
by Rachel Simon
9780446574464, Grand Central Publishing, $24.99
Quietly enthralling. That's the first thing that comes to mind when trying to describe this book. The basic facts - the lives of 4 people interwoven over a period of 40 years - don't do justice to the elegant and simple way this novel unfolds and lays out the complexities of the plot. Rachel Simon exhibits true mastery in how her writing jumps from time, place, and point-of-view to paint a complete picture using pivotal moments, and her writing is lovely to boot: "What is the history of the word for 'child'? What is the future of the word for 'mine'?" (pg. 154).
The story begins on the doorstep of Martha's farmhouse in the late 1960s. A retired schoolteacher and longtime widow, Martha leads a simple life, her social life consisting of writing and receiving letters from her former students and hosting a yearly holiday party. When a deaf black man and a mentally-ill white woman show up on her doorstep with a newborn, Martha barely has time to feed them and clothe them before officials from the State School for the Incurable and Feeble-Minded knock on her door. Without really understanding what is happening, Martha lets the men in and they search her home to find Lynnie, the woman, hiding in a back bedroom. There is no sign of Homan, the man, and the officials apparently don't know to look for the baby. As Lynnie passes Martha, while being dragged from the house, Lynnie manages to whisper, "Hide her," and so Martha does. For the next 14 years, Martha will dedicate herself to the care, feeding, protecting, and loving of the baby, Beautiful Girl, Julia.
Meanwhile, Lynnie is brought back to the School, where she must endure the derision of the guards, and inattention of the doctors, and the loss of both Beautiful Girl and Homan. Not everything is horrible, however, and with the help of her friends - Doreen, a fellow "inmate" at the school, and Kate, a school employee - Lynnie is able to use her artistic ability to draw pictures depicting her escape, her return, and continue with drawing her life after. Over time, conditions at the School improve, Lynnie's own mind and abilities improve, and she is able to work on learning to speak, learning to communicate, and learning to take care of herself within assisted environments, ultimately speaking up in favor of legislation that would close all schools like the one she grew up in. Yet, despite her personal growth, she is constant in her memory of Homan and her baby.
Homan, deaf, scared, unable to communicate as no one understands his signs, he can't understand American Sign Language, nor can he read lips, runs from one situation to another - some of them bad, some of them good - but most of them taking him farther and farther away from Lynnie and Beautiful Girl. For a long time, he keeps the thought of returning to the School at the forefront of his mind, but it's the 60s, and then the 70s, and the introduction of smoking pot into his life makes it easy for him to live more complacently with people and in situations that don't push him to continue toward his goal. After many years of living an almost apathetic existence, crossing paths with someone from his past will bring about a change in him that has him looking toward a brighter future.
Ignorant of the circumstances of her birth, Julia has only known her grandmother Matilda (Martha) and the various aunts and uncles (Martha's former students) that have given them food and shelter over the years. It isn't until Julia hits her teen years that she begins to question, she begins to rebel, and Martha faces the tough decision of what and how much and when to tell Julia the truth of her birth.
Forty years brings about a lot of change in the world, and in the people involved, but certain constants - like love, and sacrifice, and caring for others as part of human nature - weave a positive thread throughout the opposition all four main characters face. The final scenes provide a clever glimpse into the future beyond the book without wrapping things up too carefully, so that Lynnie, Homan, Julia, and even Martha live on inside the reader long past the final page.