Only the Beautiful, published this past April by author Susan Meissner, who is a master of historical fiction, is a gut-wrenching but ultimately uplifting story of maternal love, family, guilt and remorse, and the fear of those who are ‘different.’
When the book opens, the world is on the cusp of another world war, but Rosie is happily living on a vineyard in Sonoma, California, with her parents as caretakers. When tragedy strikes, she is taken in by the Calverts, the vineyard owners, not as a daughter but as a servant. Still, she is given room and board and is counting down the days until she is 18 and is able to move forward with her life.
Rosie also carries a secret that her mother knew would spell trouble for her if the world learned of it: she has synesthesia, a rare, perceptual phenomenon in which she sees colors when she hears sounds. Synesthesia was not widely understood during the 1930s and 1940s. Rosie tells her secret to someone who she later realizes was not trustworthy, which will prove to have consequences for her down the road.
When Celine, the mistress of the house, learns that her young charge is pregnant at age 17, she banishes her and sends her away, against her will. While Rosie believes she is going to a home for unwed mothers, the place where she ends up is much, much worse. She calls upon all of her survival skills to ensure her eventual release while mourning the forcible adoption of her daughter, Amaryllis, named for an amaryllis bulb given to her by Helen Calvert, Celine’s sister-in-law.
Meanwhile, Helen returns from Europe after 40 years abroad as a nanny. Having lost a loved one to the Nazi’s cruel eugenics experiments, in which disabled children were systematically destroyed, she turns her energy toward rescuing as many children as she can, in part to assuage her guilt for her role in the death of someone dear to her. Eventually, Helen realizes it is time to come home. When Helen arrives back in America, she is shocked to learn that she has a niece; she uses all of her contacts and resources to locate her niece with a vow to give her a good life.
The story is told through two perspectives, first Rosie’s, and then Helen’s, the biological aunt of Rosie’s baby. The timelines shift as well, so that the reader can truly grasp the consequences of what each character has gone through.
It is easy for the reader to become deeply immersed in both of the main characters’ lives and invested in the story. This is not a light, beach read but rather a thought-provoking and multilayered novel. Despite the heavy subject matter, the book is well worth the investment of time, as it is a book that will stay with you long after you close the pages. Meissner’s characters are authentic, and her research of the time period is impeccable.
The book is as much a lesson in history on the ideology and horror of eugenics as it is a riveting novel. The themes of compliance, guilt, and bravery are dominant, and I think it would make for an engaging book club discussion. Although the year is only half over, Only the Beautiful undoubtedly will be one of my top books of 2023.