The Next Chapter: Love Stories
These two books are about ten love stories. Nine are true and one is fiction, but in all the stories, both time and place are very significant and the love they describe probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.
“The Story of Beautiful Girl” by Rachel Simon, published by Grand Central, a division of Hatchette Publishers is a beautiful story of a girl and her first and only love. The main characters are unlikely a young blond beautiful girl, Lynnie, who is developmentally disabled and is left in The School for the Incurables and Feebleminded by her family and a teenage deaf African-American man named Homan, known only as 42 at the school, since he is unable to identify himself.
We first meet them when a retired widowed schoolteacher, Martha, hears a knock on her door on a stormy night. She lets the couple in and finds that they have a newborn baby. She feeds them and gives them clothes, but soon people come looking for them. Lynnie is taken away, but she whispers to Martha, “Hide her”. 42 escapes into the woods. For the rest of the book, we see how Martha is able to marshal her resources which are basically her favorite students who are now scattered across the country. They alternately take her and the baby in and hide them. Meanwhile Homan manages to travel from one place to another, sometimes being befriended and at other times mistreated. Along the way, he is tricked into accepting a packet of money from some thieves who use him as a kind of courier which he hides for the rest of his journey. Neither Homan or Lynnie ever forget each other and Lynnie never forgets how she was raped by a school guard and that she has a daughter somewhere.
Through Martha’s efforts and that of one of her old students who is now a TV reporter, an investigation of the abuses of mental health facilities is conducted and conditions improve for the inmates including Lynnie. Lynnie is also befriended by one of the counselors and she relearns to speak and to become more self-sufficient and her artistic talent is encouraged. Eventually she lives in a group home.
Meanwhile, Martha is raising baby Julia who at 14 and experiences adolescent rebellion. Martha has met and married a retired man and he is co-parenting Julia, and when Martha dies, he continues in that role. Martha, an inveterate letter writer has been writing letters to Julia for her entire life and saving them for her. Homan meanwhile has reunited with a friend he met on the road and he, with the help of the money he has kept hidden for many years, is able to live independently and to learn another form of sign language and is able to make himself understood. He learns to read and write. Like Lynnie, he has never forgotten “Beautiful Girl and Little One”, the two loves of his life.
The story has a very happy ending and while one might say there are many coincidences and plot twists needed to make that happy ending, the beautifully written narratives carries the listener right along. The author’s footnote explains how she had a disabled sister which led her to learn about institutions and become familiar with many stories of people in them and these stories inspired her to write this one.
In “Heart of the City” by Ariel Sabar, published by Da Capo/Perseus, the author describes how his parents met in New York’s Washington Square Park and in spite of their different backgrounds, fell in love. Because of the importance the setting had on their romance, he is led to try to understand how place impacts people’s ability to connect. The book is constructed with an analysis of how public spaces draw people together. This analysis makes these stories even more meaningful as the magnetism created by the spaces is evident in all the chance meetings.
The nine stories he chooses range from one wartime story set in the 1940’s to some that are very recent encounters. New York’s geography from the top of the Empire State Building, to the boat to the Statue of Liberty, the subway and many parks all transform themselves into love nests in the sense that they create a setting for love to be born and to grow. Most of the couples have significant barriers to their love. For instance, a visiting Asian woman meets a Boston-raised man on the subway by asking for directions and when he becomes her only contact, she goes to him for help and eventually love. A young runaway girl meets a sailor in Central Park and then loses contact with him when he is put on duty and unable to return. A newspaper article about her arrest as a vagrant brings them together again which leads to a marriage of 64 years. In other stories, the barriers are less significant: Two people meet in an art museum. They come from different backgrounds and the woman is not interested, but they are drawn together by a busybody woman who recognizes something in them. Repeatedly, their initial attraction seems doomed, but eventually they end up together. The best part of the book is the end when the author tracks down the lovers in the book to give an update on how their loves turned out and like good love stories, there are only happy endings.
In both of these books, place plays a very significant role in the romances as do circumstances and while in fiction these plot twists may seem contrived, the true stories show that real life romance can also be filled with plot twists that may seem preordained and unlikely.