Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Introducing 'The Story of Beautiful Girl'

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The Story Of Beautiful Girl. Photo / Supplied
The Story Of Beautiful Girl. Photo / Supplied

I was in two minds when it came to choosing The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon for my September feature read.

It's not that I had doubts about the book's prospects. The first chapters are enticing, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive and any novel that makes the New York Times bestseller list two weeks after publication must have something special going on.

I just wasn't sure if I wanted to choose a book that had the potential to be a heart wrencher. Reading choices are often influenced by our moods, and with spring on the doorstep it was tempting to choose something light and amusing.

But as I examined other possibilites for September, my mind kept coming back to The Story of Beautiful Girl. It begins one stormy night in rural Pennsylvania, when two escapees from the Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded wash up on the doorstep of the elderly widow Martha, clutching a newborn baby.

There's Lynnie, a young white woman with an intellectual disability, and Homan, a deaf African American man. Back at the School, Homan is simply known as Number Forty-Two. He doesn't know Lynnie's name, so he calls her Beautiful Girl.

When the authorities descend on Martha's farmhouse, Homan escapes and as Lynnie is dragged away in a straitjacket, she begs Martha to hide the baby.

The 40 year tale is told chapter-about by these three voices. Lynnie, institutionalised and dreaming of Homan and her lost child, Martha, raising a stranger's baby, and Homan, on the run and trying to get back to Beautiful Girl.

The book is dedicated to "those who were put away" and tells of a time when vulnerable individuals were locked up in institutions, often abandoned neglected or abused.

Critics have praised Simon's compassionate and honest approach to the question of what it means to live with a disability. The first few chapters contain strong images revealing how Lynnie and Homan see the world. Lynnie sits in the back of the police car, rolling her head so that the "colors flow like ribbons", because she'd long ago discovered that when she "stopped a head circle, her mind landed in another place and time."

Then there's Homan, interpreting the intentions of others by their facial expressions. There's the Yell Face and the Baby Talk Face, "the faces most hearing folks put on when they caught on about Homan's deafness."

This is a field where Simon has form. Her bestselling memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister, chronicled the year she spent accompanying her sister Beth, who has an intellectual disability and loves to ride buses around an unnamed Pennsylvania city. The experience led Simon to a new appreciation of her sister as an independent person with strong views about how she wants to live her own life, and to reconsider her own narrow, work-obsessed life.

"Both captivating and heartbreaking, [The Story of Beautiful Girl] is meant to be savoured, not merely read," wrote Holly Weiss in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "Adeptly nuanced and originally wrought, the book explores our compassion and intolerance towards people different from ourselves."

In the end, I chose The Story of Beautiful Girl because it felt like an important book, a book that deserves to be read and thought about, a book that might challenge my way of thinking. Or as the Washington Post put it, "a work of fiction committed to confronting a deeply disturbing truth."

I'm looking forward to that journey and to discussing the book with Rachel Simon in our upcoming author Q and A. If you have a question for Rachel, please e-mail it to us by Thursday September 8, using the email author link below.

On Tuesday, Bronwyn will introduce her September feature read, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

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