- The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon, read by Kate Reading
- Audio CD; approximately 12 hours on 10 CDs
- Publisher: Hachette Audio; Unabridged edition (May 4, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-1609411084
Back-of-the-box blurb: It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone – Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl. When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: “Hide her.” And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia – lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ thoughts: Several years ago, our book group read and discussed Rachel Simon’s Riding the Bus with My Sister. This “true life journey” (I’d call it a memoir), shares the observations and lessons the author learned as she accompanied Beth, who has an intellectual disability, on her daily rounds of riding the city buses. Our group found the book to be honest, insightful, and utterly discussable.
So, when I was offered the opportunity to “read” and review the audio of Simon’s new novel (she has also published a collection of short fiction, a novel, a writing guide, and a second memoir), I jumped at the chance. The Story of Beautiful Girl is the fictional account of a woman who is institutionalized as a child due to an intellectual disability. Despite being unable to communicate in a traditional manner, Lynnie develops a true friendship and loving relationship with Homan, a deaf resident who is “John Doe, Number 42″ at the institution.
Linnie and Homan escape the “school” when she is in labor, giving birth to “Little One” on the run, and taking refuge in the farmhouse of a widow named Martha. As the authorities close in on Linnie and “Number 42,” Linnie finds the strength to push past her self-imposed muteness to ask Martha to hide the baby. Childless, Martha takes on this task with a fierce dedication and sense of purpose.
The Story of Beautiful Girl is told from the perspectives of Linnie, Homan, Martha, and Kate, a social worker at the institution who encourages Linnie to pursue her artistic talents. Simon writes empathetically, showing us Linnie as she grows – from a child struggling to understand why her family no longer visits her at the institution, to a young woman with tender feelings toward a man who truly loves and respects her, to an adult who … well, I can’t tell you, that would be a spoiler!
The novel addresses the general public’s treatment of (reaction to) those who are developmentally or physically disabled, how this population (and others who are “different” due to gender or race) may be misunderstood or taken advantage of. Simon speaks to the rights of all people to advocate for themselves, to “random acts of kindness,” and to the powers of love. Some of the plot relies heavily on coincidence and luck, but, isn’t that a reflection of life itself?
** Updated to add a few more thoughts, since one commenter indicated that it’s not clear whether I *like* the book or not. Emphatically, YES! The Story of Beautiful Girl is moving, thought-provoking, and offers many discussable topics for book groups (in fact, I found a Reading Guide on Oprah.com, but it contains spoilers, so don’t read it until you’ve read the novel!). My comment about “coincidence and luck” in the plot is actually a tip of my hat; I often seem curmudgeon-ish because I don’t like “neat and tidy” endings – the resolution of this novel was perfect!
As I tweeted to @JennsBookshelf, “winning combo of engrossing/insightful novel & stellar narrator! I want a lighthouse man on my mailbox .” Kate Reading’s narration is steady and pleasant; her subtle voice changes indicate change of narrator without sounding contrived or over-reaching. Reading has been featured in Audiofile magazine, and has received several Earphone awards. She narrated Jane Smiley’s Private Life, which I reviewed here.
You can read more about Rachel Simon and her books on her website, follow her on twitter at @RachelSimon, and “like” the Facebook page for The Story of Beautiful Girl. I enjoyed this short (4-minute) video interview excerpt, in which Rachel Simon discusses her inspiration for the character of Homan: