Martha is a widowed, retired, schoolteacher, living in isolation on her farm outside a small American town in 1968. So when she hears a knock at the door in the middle of a torrential downpour, she surprises herself by opening the door and letting in a very odd couple. So begins The Story of Beautiful Girl, the latest novel from Rachel Simon.
It turns out the couple do not speak – the man is a tall, well-built, deaf-mute and the woman is young, slender and beautiful, but intellectually disabled. They are fugitives from The State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and when the authorities catch up with them at Martha’s house, they have the choice of returning or staying on the run. The man runs for it, while the woman returns to the School. But unknown to the authorities, Martha is left with a very precious package – a newborn baby girl, who can’t be more than a few hours old. The only words that Martha hears from the couple is a whisper from the woman – “Hide. Her.” as she is carted out.
The story follows Martha, who has no children of her own, but dozens of ex-pupils around the country who would help her out, as she prepares to accede to the mother’s wishes and hide the newborn – and also herself. We are also following the stories of the woman – Lynnie – and the man, known to the School as “Number Forty-Two”, but actually named Homan. The institutionalised world in 1968 is hidden from the mainstream, but Martha, with the help of her ex-pupils, starts to understand it and force a crack in the walls surrounding places like The State School. Lynnie, still within those walls, is able to observe the cracks happening and take control of her own story. So that by the story’s close, set in the present day, we can see how the world has changed and be thankful for that change, having seen it from Lynnie’s perspective as well.
This is truly a beautiful story, about Lynnie, “Beautiful Girl”, but also about the beauty in Martha that is brought out in her unusual situation, and the contrast with the world inside the institutional walls. It is thought-provoking and solemn but there are moments of pure joy and happiness, even in the face of circumstances faced by Homan as he runs from ignorance, bigotry, the authorities, and even his own memories. It certainly makes me thoughtful and thankful for the blessings in my life.
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