Title: The Story of Beautiful Girl
Author: Rachel Simon
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (Hatchette)
Genre: Literary Fiction
Where I got it: Net Galley from the publisher
I hope people read this book. I could pretty much just leave my review at that, since it is most of what I want to say about it, but I suppose I should qualify my statement. Rachel Simon's book is a good read, not the best read of the year for me, but maybe the most important. The Story of Beautiful Girl is the story of the state of mental health care in the United States. More specifically, it is the story of Lynnie and Homan, two residents of "The School" a residential home for the developmentally disabled in the 1960's. Homan is deaf, and although he has no mental disabilities, he is institutionalized because he is unable to communicate. The book begins when Homan and Lynnie run away one rainy night, and the rest of the book is the journey, for a number of characters, that grows out of that original escape. New narrative voices grow and branch out until the story is complete, like a full grown tree.
I am currently working on a novel in third person, with more than one narrative voice and understand the challenges of that type of writing. I think that Simon handled the narrative well, for something so chronologically expansive and multi-voiced. The voice I grew most attached to throughout the narrative was Lynnie's, although the one I found most authentic was Homan's. Although their voices were the strongest in the narrative, the other characters were essential as well. The story is as much about the Marthas (the woman who took in the runaways and found herself an advocate for the institutionalized) and Kates (a sympathetic employee at "The School") as it is about the Lynnies and the Homans. In the end, the book is about triumph over an oppressive system, but also a warning about what can, and did, happen.
As a reader that loves to read about reading (whew!), I also enjoyed the suggestion that storytelling is a powerful tool that appears again and again throughout the text. In one of the early chapters, Kate encourages Lynnie to tell her a story using drawings. During this experience, Lynnie realizes for the first time:
A book wasn't something you could open anywhere and then flip to anywhere else. You opened it at the front and went forward, and the pages went from one to the next, each adding to the last, and the story grew more exciting with each page. It was like the way corn grew from the seen that got planted in spring to the tall rows you hid inside in the fall. A story grew.
As the narrative goes on, and this story grows, all the characters learn ways to tell their stories, and the reader is along for the emotional and educational ride.