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This novel has three main characters, who meet each other one night. They are a widow, Martha, a young woman who does not talk, Lynnie, and a young African American man, Homan, who is deaf. It turns out that the two younger people have run away from a state institution for people with intellectual and emotional disabilities, the Pennsylvania State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded. It is the 1960s, a time when such institutions were large and they were soon to gain a reputation for neglecting their inmates and allowing terrible abuses. The Story of Beautiful Girl sets out a tale of such abuse, and the fight against it. It spans over four decades, going from one character to another, who are separated after that first night. Each jump in the narrative involves some catching up from the last time it was with the character, and it also flashes back to the much earlier past, so it leapfrogs in time and place -- this is an effective way to tell a story that spans such a long period, but it is a little formulaic.
It turns out that the young couple leaves a baby with Martha before the authorities catch up with them. Lynnie is taken back to the School, the young man manages to run away, and Martha has to work out what to do with the baby. She has her own relevant experience: she and her late husband had a baby that died soon after birth, because of some sort of birth defect. She always regretted that loss, while everyone else said that it had been better that the baby had died. She had been a school teacher and she had wanted children, but she and her husband never tried again. Indeed, their marriage was cool and passionless. So Martha sees this sudden arrival of a baby in her life as an opportunity to grasp. She leaves her house, on the run from the authorities, and she and the baby start a new life. They stay with old students of hers; she must have been a remarkable elementary school teacher to form such a lasting bond with the children that they remained in touch all the way into their adulthood.
Lynnie came from a Jewish family who felt ashamed to have a disabled daughter, and convinced themselves that she would be better off with people of her own kind, and so left her at the school. Although she is one of the better functioning residents, she gets put with low functioning students, and she stopped talking because it just caused her problems. Homan became deaf after an illness, because his family could not afford a doctor. His childhood was rough, and became a drifter. He ended up at the school not because he was feebleminded but rather because it was a place to put people when they couldn't put them in jail.
So we see three very different lives, and each grows as time goes by, as they learn to take control of their circumstances. We see how discriminatory attitudes hurt people and we see horrific disregard of the rights of disabled people. Yet this is more a story of hope and morality, with the downtrodden eventually achieving happiness and those who exploit others get their comeuppance.
Simon writes well -- she is best known for her memoir Riding the Bus With My Sister, and she has done research for her novel, so it is a good guide to its subject. But the complexity of the novel rests in telling a long story, and her characters are individually straightforward, although they have a few secrets. The female characters are more believable than Homan, but his life is eventful, and that keeps one listening to the audiobook, or turning the pages.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by Kate Reading, and it is a compassionate and dramatic interpretation. It is a particular challenge to perform the role of Lynnie, and Reading manages to convey her difficulty with language without making her seem stupid.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York