Once in a while, you come across a book that perfectly captures the pain of past trauma and teaches you something appalling about your country's past. Only the Beautiful, a new novel by Susan Meissner, is just that novel. Reading this new historical fiction was a visceral experience, for the pain and frustration of the main characters poured from the pages. If you're looking for a heart-wrenching story of a mother's love against all odds, then do not miss Only the Beautiful.
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A heartrending story about a young mother’s fight to keep her daughter, and the winds of fortune that tear them apart by the New York Times 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.
I finished Only the Beautiful months ago, but this story has stayed with me far longer than I anticipated. That's because it's a powerful story full of emotion, depth, profound loss, and hope. The world was a cruel place back then, especially for those deemed abnormal. Unfortunately, Rosie fell into that category only because the world didn't yet understand her condition.
I really loved the dual perspectives in this book and really appreciated that the timelines were not alternating. It was as if there were two books in one, which really worked well for this novel. I got so lost in Rosie's story and the unbelievable trauma she endured. And Helen's story was equally as compelling; Meissner did a wonderful job of portraying Helen as a sympathetic character, one we can all relate to.
The WWII storyline was one that we haven't heard much about, which I appreciated as a WWII fiction fanatic. The parallels drawn between the politics of Nazi Germany and the United States were especially jarring, reminding me of The Last Carolina Girl. It's insane to think that eugenics was ever a practice here in the US, but it sadly was for many years. And only because of champions like Helen and stories like Rosie's did the public stand up and say "No more!"
Only the Beautiful is a must-read book for any historical fiction lover. While there is a WWII element, it's primarily a story of womanhood, motherhood, and family ties. A true tearjerker, Only the Beautiful is the type of novel you buy for yourself, your friends, and your family. Definitely add this to your To Be Read list!