May 4, 2011

"The Story of Beautiful Girl" by Rachel Simon

Like waiting for a holiday, a vacation, or a very special event, anticipation is a big part of the pleasure and following along with Rachel Simon, via her blog and Facebook page, as she did a pre-release tour for her newest book, The Story of Beautiful Girl, helped get me through winter doldrums and kept the May release date firmly in my mind. I had read the online excerpt and was sure ...Beautiful Girl would become one of my favorite books. Titles that are on a special shelf in our home. Books that transport my mind, suspend time, wrap themselves around me like a beautiful quilt of memories.
The Story of Beautiful Girl did just that.

First, as a book designer, let me take a moment to comment on the packaging of this title. The cover art was featured on a CBS Sunday Morning episode (click the link to see the episode) months before the release. When I saw it, held up proudly in Central Publishing's New York office, I called to my husband, "They're showing Rachel Simon's book!" It was exciting, because I was already familiar with the distinctive silhouette of a woman, her hair bound up in a loose bun, her face slightly downcast.

The white background of the jacket has a pearl effect; I'm not sure how that was achieved, but it is understated elegance at its finest. The font used in the title is a work of graphic art and the orange-red letters are raised off the jacket. But wait, that's not all! When you open the book you are greeted with matching colored end sheets splashed with the silhouettes of feathers. A feather is also shown on the back jacket, with a baby's hand reaching toward it. I love the simple beauty of this jacket. It fits perfectly with the story and the sophisticated design continues on each page. And now, to the story...

The Story of Beautiful Girl is dedicated to "those who were put away." Even the front matter supports the design and tone of the story, with a beautiful verse by the Reverend Nancy Lane. I'm not giving it away, because you need to get this book and find these lovely touches yourself.

Simon begins her tale in 1968, with Part I: Hiding. We meet Martha, the widow, Lynnie, a young woman who is mute and mentally disabled, and Homan, an African-American deaf man on the run. The story continues in Part II: Going (1969, 1970) and we become closer to the characters and also learn the significance of the "red feather" as well as more details of past events pertinent to the story.

I don't want to reveal much about the plot, so I'll just say that Part III: Seeking scoots us to 1980, 1988, 1993, 1995, 2001, and 2011. I like the way each chapter has a title, along with the name of the character who is the focus of the chapter and the year. We meet additional supporting characters like Kate who worked at the at the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded where Lynnie and Homan start their story, and other folks whose paths cross with Homan, Lynnie, and Martha. The child hinted at on the back jacket is Julia, Lynnie's baby, who grows to adulthood by the last chapter in a heart-stopping scene that will make you feel as if you hear the music and see the images, like a movie, like a wonderful conclusion of a meaningful film that weaves a story around your heart and enlightens your mind.

There is no doubt that this book will end up in movie form, but a film will not be as good as the book, because only with the author's words can you be brought so closely into the thoughts of these characters. A film might show the events, show other things too, and do much good in bringing to light the story of those among us imprisoned by the limitations of our approach to folks with disabilities, but it will never have subtle beauty of Rachel Simon's writing.

Simon is the author of Riding the Bus with My Sister and The House on Teacher's Lane, and has other books and anthology contributions to her credit as well. Her story is included in Thicker than Water: Essays of Adult Siblings with Disabilities. On her blog and in her books, Simon writes about her sister, Beth, her family history, "building a home with her husband" (the title on the hardcover version of The House on Teacher's Lane), and the writing life and events related to her book. She travels the country meeting with other siblings of folks with disabilities and talking before advocacy and support groups for people with disabilities and their families. And now, with The Story of Beautiful Girl, she has wrapped much of her life and heart into fiction form and presented to us a story of loss and of hope.

This is why I love fiction and those who write it well; who take what means something to them and weave it into a story, not from nothing, but from nearly everything. A writer, in some cases but perhaps not all, doesn't build a story from an empty page, but looks at everything in the world, then decides what to leave out. What is left is the foundation of the story.

In The Story of Beautiful Girl I see the shadows of what was removed. The months and years not explained in the book. The author does a good job of giving enough information so that we can fill in the blanks. It's the only way you can take a story from 1968 to 2011 in 346 pages.

I appreciated very much the Acknowledgments section, located at the end of the book. Don't skip reading this, as it is an important part of the "why" behind the story. I am always interested in how writers get ideas for their stories and Simon mentions a nameless man from 1945 as the impetus for ...Beautiful Girl.

As the parent of an adult son who has mental and physical challenges, including deafness, I noticed carefully the way Rachel Simon portrayed the thoughts and emotions of Homan. It was amazing. Only someone who has spent time with folks with disabilities and interacted with them with respect and humility can then capture so beautifully their viewpoint. This is the effort that a reader may not see within the words on each page, but for those who follow Simon's work and life, the heart in her book will come as no surprise.

You can learn more about Rachel Simon and her work at The Story of Beautiful Girl, in my opinion, is suitable for readers 15 and older. I would love to see high school seniors assigned this book and having the opportunity to learn about this important chapter in our nation's history, as well as learning to see things from a person-with-disabilities point of view. We still have a long way to go in our treatment of folks like Homan and Lynnie. And, while places like the School described in this book have closed, there are still state hospitals, nursing homes, state schools, jails, and prisons where people with disabilities struggle to be understood and to have hope. Hope for the basic things all of us yearn for: safety, understanding, family, work, home.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a 26-minute interview with Rachel Simon where she talks about the bigger issues related to how folks with disabilities and those without relate to each other. She provides insights on what life is like for some folks and how we can understand better how they are just like us. "The big joys that make up their daily life..." She also talks about the "holy work" of telling stories and the way art is woven within "The Story of Beautiful Girl."


Dina said...

Wow. When you love a book, you REALLY love it! This impassioned review convinces me I must read it. I noticed this is the book you suggested to me on my FB page...I'll get to it one of these days. The good reads list to the right of this post features 5 titles you've read and enjoyed. I'm a bit surprised to find I've read 4 of the 5. I say surprised because I don't usually read "good" works; did plenty of that in college and now mostly read suspense or romance. But I manage to get an important book in once in awhile. The Story of Beautiful Girl will be one of those.

ausurfer said...

Great review Janice. Having read a couple of Rachel's books previously, I have no doubt that this will be a book that sits on my special shelf as well. Now I just have to wait for Beautiful Girl to wing her way to Australia, in time for the arrival of winter, one of my favourite times of the year to read.
Thanks for the insight, and not revealing too much.

Janice Phelps Williams said...

Dina: Thank you so much for taking the time to read this lengthy review. I am sure you would like Rachel's book.

Kim: I saw your post that your copy has shipped. I'm sure you will find many aspects of this book interesting. I just posted a link to Rachel's interview; it's very interesting.

Glynis said...

I love the sound of this book. Your post has certainly got my taste buds moving.

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