Book Review: Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner

Posted April 20, 2023 by meezcarrie in historical, Susan Meissner / 8 Comments

ONLY THE BEAUTIFUL by Susan Meissner
GENRE: Historical Fiction (general market)
RELEASE DATE: April 18, 2023
PAGES: 396

A heartrending story about a young mother’s fight to keep her daughter, and the winds of fortune that tear them apart by the USA Today bestselling author of The Nature of Fragile Things and The Last Year of the War.

California, 1938—When she loses her parents in an accident, sixteen-year-old Rosanne is taken in by the owners of the vineyard where she has lived her whole life as the vinedresser’s daughter. She moves into Celine and Truman Calvert’s spacious house with a secret, however—Rosie sees colors when she hears sound. She promised her mother she’d never reveal her little-understood ability to anyone, but the weight of her isolation and grief prove too much for her. Driven by her loneliness she not only breaks the vow to her mother, but in a desperate moment lets down her guard and ends up pregnant. Banished by the Calverts, Rosanne believes she is bound for a home for unwed mothers, and having lost her family she treasures her pregnancy as the chance for a future one. But she soon finds out she is not going to a home of any kind, but to a place far worse than anything she could have imagined.

Austria, 1947—After witnessing firsthand Adolf Hitler’s brutal pursuit of hereditary purity—especially with regard to “different children”—Helen Calvert, Truman’s sister, is ready to return to America for good. But when she arrives at her brother’s peaceful vineyard after decades working abroad, she is shocked to learn what really happened nine years earlier to the vinedresser’s daughter, a girl whom Helen had long ago befriended. In her determination to find Rosanne, Helen discovers that while the war had been won in Europe, there are still terrifying battles to be fought at home.


“All of us, at some point in our lives, wish for a way to go back in time and make different decisions.”

I am a firm believer that one of the best ways we avoid repeating the evils of history is to know what they were. And not a washed-out version that’s cleverly crafted to point us solely to ‘over there’ while ignoring the same evils that were committed ‘right here’. For instance, if I asked you to tell me which country put people classified as ‘different’ into internment camps during both World Wars, or which country conducted medical experiments & procedures on ‘different’ people without their consent, would you know that ‘the United States’ is just as correct an answer as ‘Nazi Germany’? I can vividly remember when I first learned about these appalling parts of US History, and it was novels that exposed me to these truths, not a classroom. The power of story captivated me, refusing to leave my mind until I had done my own research too. Susan Meissner’s Only the Beautiful is another such novel for me, and I’m still sitting here, reflecting on what makes humans treat ‘different’ people so carelessly and how it could so easily happen again if we don’t keep our eyes open and speak out on behalf of the marginalized.

Only the Beautiful is a tale of two women (Rosie and Helen), a tale of two countries (US and Austria), and a tale of two precious little girls (Amaryllis and Brigitta). We first follow Rosie’s story, a young teenager who has lost her family in a tragic accident and has been temporarily placed with the owners of the vineyard where they lived & worked. She works for them as a housekeeper until a set of betrayals sees her removed to the Sonoma State Home for the Infirm instead of the home for unwed mothers she was expecting. Her illness? Besides being a pregnant, teenaged, unwed mother, she also sees color when she hears sounds – what we now know to be something called synesthesia. In short, she was different. What happens in that hospital left me emotionally gutted for Rosie and for every woman she’s based on in real life history who suffered similar treatment. In Rosie, Meissner has created a character of great courage even amid terrible heartbreak. I wanted to just hug Rosie through the pages from the very beginning, and my admiration for her only grew as the story progressed. She’s not perfect (none of us are, after all) and I may not be able to relate to her experiences (but for the grace of God), but she’s layered and compelling and relatable nonetheless.

At a certain point in the novel, we leave Rosie’s story in 1943 and join up with Helen’s in 1947. An older woman who has worked as a nanny in Europe for several years, she is also the sister of the vineyard owner and has developed a special bond with Rosie through exchanging letters. When we switch to Helen’s POV, she is returning to the States after the Second World War, her heart still burdened by the atrocities she’s witnessed, including the eugenics* that personally affected a child/family she loved. But in searching to learn what happened to Rosie, Helen is horrified to see the very practices she thought unique to the Nazis were a part of Rosie’s story in California as well. I absolutely loved what Helen does with this information, her determination both inspiring and rewarding to readers. After hearing about her from Rosie’s perspective in the first part of the novel, I enjoyed getting to know her for myself in the second.

Bottom Line: Only the Beautiful is a heartwrenching story wrapped in hope. The kind of hope that assures you that life doesn’t have to end when your dreams do and that good does win over evil eventually. It’s the kind of story that simultaneously shocks and inspires – stunned by what human beings can justify when it comes to people we don’t understand and compelled to make sure it never happens again. Meissner draws her characters with engaging layers and makes Rosie and Helen relatable on a human level, regardless of whether we can identify with their specific circumstances or not. Her warm writing voice immediately draws you in to the story until you’re fully – quickly – immersed, and you won’t want to put it down until you’ve read the last word. And ohhh the ending had me in tears in all the best ways.

(I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the publisher. All views expressed are only my honest opinion.)

My Rating: 4.5 stars / loved it!

Reviewer’s Note: Readers of this blog may want to be aware that there are a few minor curse words scattered throughout this novel, as well as situations that may be triggering for some.

*eugenics = striving to “eliminate, through sterilization or segregation, those deemed physically, mentally, or morally ‘undesirable’.”

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Susan Meissner is the USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction with more than three-quarters of a million books in print in eighteen languages. Her novels include The Nature of Fragile Things, starred review Publishers Weekly; The Last Year of the War, a Library Reads and Real Simple top pick; As Bright as Heaven, starred review from Library Journal; Secrets of a Charmed Life, a 2015 Goodreads Choice award finalist; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten women’s fiction titles for 2014. She is also RITA finalist and Christy Award and Carol Award winner. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University and is also a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.

Visit Susan at her website and on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

Other Featured Books by Susan Meissner

What about you? What makes you want to read Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner?

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8 responses to “Book Review: Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner

  1. Winnie Thomas

    This is on my NetGalley list, and I’m hoping to get to it this month. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, but it’s sometimes hard to read when the story is heart-breaking. I usually try to intersperse such stories with some humorous ones.

    Lovely review, my dear BFFFC!

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