Book Review: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
March 21, 2012 17 Comments
I read a few chapters of this book in a Dutch pre-publication booklet and decided this book would be worth reading. I saw it in the library last week and picked it up straight away. And started more or less straight away.
Never mind the rest of the reading pile!
The Story of Beautiful Girl: What it is about
The story is told from the perspectives of three people: Lynnie, a young woman, her boyfriend Number 42, who is a lot older than her, and Martha, a widow who lives alone on a farm.
The book starts in 1968 when young, white Lynnie and the much older black deaf Number 42 knock on Martha’s door. They are clearly on the run from something and Martha lets them dry off from the rain and gives them some new clothes. When the pursuers catch up with the couple, Lynnie and Number 42 leave behind their new-born baby, hidden in the attic, and Martha promises to look after it.
Lynnie is caught and sent back to where she came from: the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, where the inmates are treated badly (no education, sharing a toothbrush between the whole group, cruel staff, etc.). She’s got one friend, Doreen, a Down Syndrome girl who she is very close to.
Number 42, who has no known name as he couldn’t say his name when he arrived at the School, has disappeared and for a while, it’s not clear whether he has or has not drowned in a nearby river.
Martha, who was a school teacher before she retired, meanwhile worries about the authorities asking questions about the baby, and she decides to hide at the houses of some of her ex-pupils who have always kept in touch with her, and who have moved further afield. The farm is left unoccupied and she eventually sells it via her sollicitor.
Lynnie doesn’t find out for many years what happened to her baby, while her baby, Julia, asks her “grandmother” Martha about her real parents and doesn’t get a satisfactory answer until she’s in her twenties. Eventually, the reader as well as most of the characters in the story, does find out what exactly happened to the three protagonists and their baby.
The Story of Beautiful Girl: What I thought
This book started with a bang: a new-born baby is left with a widow on a farm, while the mother is sent back to an institution and the father is on the run. Four different lives to follow and to care about.
All of the stories are interesting. They intersect only a few times, briefly, but most of the time we follow the lives of the three adults. Beautiful Girl is Lynnie. Number 42 calls her that (in his head, as he cannot communicate).
Of course, the story of Lynnie in the institution is infuriating. In 1968 there is no-one looking out for the ‘mentally feeble’ and they are treated badly, almost as animals. Giving someone a number if you don’t know their name? How despicable is that? When circumstances change, it turns out Lynnie can learn things, quite a lot, actually, as long as she’s given the opportunity. The same is true for Number 42, it turns out that he can communicate after all.
The book demonstrates well how institutions in the US have improved over the years (and this is the case in many other countries too). At some point, this seems to be the main focus of the book, although Lynnie search for Julia is always present as a topic, too.
While most of the book is very believable, the story ends with a number of coincidences that didn’t convince me. But overall, this is a well-written and beautiful book.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
I got this book: from the library
I read this in: Dutch (Het verhaal van mooi meisje), the original language is English
Number of pages: 368
First published: 2011
Genre: historical fiction