Friday, June 29, 2012

The Story of Beautiful Girl: Rachel Simon

The Story of Beautiful Girl is a 2011 New York Times bestselling fictional novel by Rachel Simon. The story begins in 1968 on a treacherous, rainy November night at the Pennsylvania farmhouse of a semi-reclusive widow, Martha. Her lonely solitude is abruptly interrupted by the sudden appearance of two disheveled and desperate strangers, Homan, a deaf African American man and his companion, Laynie. As Martha bravely accepts the stricken travelers into her home she realizes that Laynie may be mentally disabled and that she carries a tiny newborn under her rain soaked blanket. Commotion erupts as the police arrive and take Laynie into custody. Homan is able to escape into the stormy night while the baby remains hidden in Martha’s attic. This cataclysmic night propels the conflict of the story and we follow the characters through four decades of its ramifications. Simon eloquently chronicles these events and the aftermath of the the characters’ attempted escape this night from the nearby Pennsylvania School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. The school provides an element of historical realism to the novel, as it is loosely based on actual mental health facilities of this time period. This was an era in American history when mentally challenged children or those with misdiagnosed disabilities where locked away from society and their families, many times for life.

The Story of Beautiful Girl paints a realistic depiction into the minds of its characters who may appear externally disabled but internally live the same human condition as the rest of us. Simon writes from the unique perspectives of Homan and Laynie and readers observe a vivid internal dialogue. Martha also lends her voice to the narrative as her life has been irrevocably changed by her chance encounter with Laynie and Homan.

Being inquisitive, I was compelled to do a bit of outside research into historical accounts of state institutions for the mentally disabled. In Q & A at the end of the book, Simon mentions a young Geraldo Rivera’s Peabody Award winning television reports on the Willowbrook State School located in Staten Island, New York in the early 1970’s. Rivera documented the deplorable and atrocious conditions at Willowbrook School and brought awareness to the plight of its residents. Also, there are two current documentary films,Cropsey (2009) and Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (1996), which reference the chilling conditions at Willowbrook and the aftermath of its closing.

In the opening reviews of the novel, author John Grogan (Marley and Me), writes, “I dare you to read the first twenty pages and not keep going.” Fortunately, I took his challenge and was pleasantly surprised with an amazing work of fiction most worthy of reading.

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