The dedication is fair warning: Rachel Simon’s “The Story of Beautiful Girl” is for “those who were put away,” for the generations of people with disabilities who for many years were locked in institutions, away from families, out of sight of society and, in some cases, far away from basic human decency. In short, this novel is the author’s gift to those who never had a chance to speak for themselves. And so, from the start, we know what’s coming: a work of fiction committed to confronting a deeply disturbing truth.
Part love story, part mystery, part social commentary, the tale begins with “the night that would change everything,” an event that triggers the 40-year epic to come. For just a few moments, during a raging storm, four people cross paths, the strands of their lives twisting into a mysterious knot, bound by a promise. Lynnie, a mentally disabled woman who does not speak, is caught and taken back to the state institution from which she escaped. Homan, a deaf African American man, continues running, plunging through the woods, desperate to elude capture. And meanwhile, a newborn baby sleeps in the attic of a widow who wonders how she will keep this infant safe.
From here, the plot unfolds across the decades, covering so much ground that readers may wonder at the improbable twists of fate that befall these characters. Heart-wrenching moments abound, sometimes weighted with overly earnest insights. But there’s an alluring mystery to solve and impossible odds to overcome, which propel the story forward.
As Homan wonders whether he will ever again see Lynnie, whom he calls Beautiful Girl, he tries to make sense of the sad and confusing events they have endured: “Maybe when you’re making your way forward into your life, it just looks higgledy-piggledy, the way, if you were a fly walking across one of Beautiful Girl’s drawings, all you’d be able to see was green, then blue, then yellow. Only if you got in the air . . . would you see the colors belonged to a big drawing, with the green for this part of the picture, the blue and yellow for others, every color being just where it was meant to be. Could that be what life was?”
For her part, Lynnie often longs for Homan’s return: “As every day passed, she felt herself growing numb. Her legs did not want to move . . . and she knew it was from the wanting.”
The real mystery of this book lies not so much in the plot twists — Will Lynnie and Homan ever reunite? Will baby Julia ever discover her true identity? — but right here, inside the heads of its characters: How does someone like Homan or Lynnie, living with mental disability, experience and think about life? Simon addresses that question with compassion and heart, informed by her experience with her own sister, who has an intellectual disability. Readers are likely to emerge from “The Story of Beautiful Girl” with a new level of empathy for those who were once hidden away — and for all those living with a disability.
Casanave is a freelance writer who lives in New Hampshire.
THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL GIRL
By Rachel Simon
346 pp. $24.99