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Reviews of Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner

Only the Beautiful

by Susan Meissner

Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner X
Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Apr 2023, 400 pages

    Mar 2024, 400 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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About this Book

Book Summary

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. But she soon finds out she is not going to a home of any kind, but to a place that seeks to forcibly take her baby – and the chance for any future babies – from her.

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 a shocking American eugenics program—and learns that that while the war had been won in Europe, there are still terrifying battles to be fought at home.


Sonoma County, California

February 1939

The chardonnay vines outside my open window are silent, but I still see in my mind the bursts of teal and lavender their summer rustlings always called to my mind. That sound had been my favorite, those colors the prettiest. The leafless stocks with their arms outstretched on cordon after cordon look like lines of dancers waiting for the music to start—­for spring to set their performance in motion. Looking at them, I feel a deep sadness. It might be a long time before I see again these vines that had for so long been under my father's care, or hear their leaves whisper, spilling the colors in my mind that belong to them alone.

Perhaps I will never see this vineyard again.

The Calverts won't welcome a future visit from me. Celine Calvert has already made it clear that after today she is done with me. Done.

For a moment the words if only flutter in my head, but I lean forward and pull the window shut. What is to be gained by wishing I ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. How are Rosie's and Helen's stories linked thematically? How are they separate?
  2. Rosie feels tremendous guilt over how she became pregnant. How much of what happened to her is her fault? Is any of it?
  3. Why do you think people often fear what they can't explain or don't understand?
  4. Was Rosie's mother asking too much of Rosie when she made her promise not to tell anyone about her ability?
  5. Why do you think Celine was so controlling? Did she have good qualities, too? Did Truman? What were his flaws? How do you feel about these two characters?
  6. Dr. Townsend tells Helen that Rosie's synesthesia made her life miserable. Did it? Do you know someone with synesthesia?
  7. Helen attributes her wanderlust to her deceased mother's unfulfilled wishes to...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Only the Beautiful.
You can see the full discussion here.

Could Johannes have done more to save his daughter? What would you have done?
Ditto. This storyline was so incredibly heart wrenching. Unimaginable, really. But we know people have endured such traumatic times and still do, given all the global "unrest." I wish those people who deny these things happened or could... - melissa c.

Did you feel closer to Rosie or Helen? What did you think about how the book was structured?
Although I did not feel closer to one character over another, I did love the structure of the novel. It was well thought out and the storyline flowed nicely. The structure fit the type story being told. Very well done! - lauriem

Do you believe literature, even fiction, can help shape the world? Did you learn anything new from Only the Beautiful?
Yes I did. I was aware of Hitler's practice but was not aware that it was practiced in America as well. This thought-provoking novel stayed with me long after I finished the last page. - caroln

Do you see eugenic ideology as it played out in Only the Beautiful in our world today? In what ways?
Yes, these are awful times that we are living in. I fear that history can repeat itself. While it might not be legal anymore, that doesn't make it go away completely. I just had the thought that this was mentioned during the ... - ColoradoGirl

Do you think Helen did enough during the war to protect the innocent? Do you think she could have been more helpful if she had remained in Austria or returned to America?
I agree with Lee, Jill, and others, putting her life at risk to save children should be celebrated. I think in hindsight, we often wish we had done more. But many people didn't take any chances to save others. Perhaps had she ... - ColoradoGirl

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BookBrowse Review


Meissner's extensive research into this time period and movement is clear in her detailed descriptions of mental institutions and the resistance Helen meets as she advocates for the differently abled. Brutal and heartbreaking, yet ultimately joyful, Only the Beautiful not only shines a light on a dark period in American history but shows the importance of speaking out for what's right...continued

Full Review (692 words)

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(Reviewed by Jordan Lynch).

Media Reviews

Historical Novels Review
Only the Beautiful is an emotional journey of grief, hope, and second chances… Meissner pulls no punches in comparing America's treatment of people with disabilities with the Nazis' actions a few years later, leaving the reader with the emphatic message that everyone has a moral obligation to speak out against governments doing horrible things. This one resonates.

San Diego Union-Tribute
Susan Meissner is a master of the genre…[Only the Beautiful] is set in 1930s California and explores our country's brief but troubling fascination with eugenics via the story of Helen.

Library Journal (starred review)
Meissner delivers a nuanced and heartbreaking tale; expect to read through tear-filled eyes as the story concludes.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Meissner...[draws] striking parallels between Germany's forced euthanasia of disabled people and eugenics in the U.S. Readers will be riveted.

Reader Reviews


Tragic Humanity
This book is heart wrenching, Rosie cannot catch a break, losing her parents, brother, taken in by someone who despises her and uses her as a maid. She becomes pregnant and taking to a home for the mentally handicapped. This book address so many ...   Read More
Carmel B

America's Secluded Shame
Meissner’s searing chronicle of the lives of Rosie and Helen is the most enlightening I have read since reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” when I was fifteen years old. I am now seventy-five. I learned three new words within the first few chapters: ...   Read More
Elizabeth@Silver's Reviews

Elizabeth@Silver's Reviews - WOW!! READ IT!!
WOW - another beautiful read by Susan Meissner!! After Rosanne's parents were killed in an accident, she moved into the house of the vineyard owners where her parents worked. Celine and Truman Calvert were always good to Rosanne and her family,...   Read More
Becky H

a Must Read
This two-pronged story tells of the young vinedresser’s daughter, Roseanne, who is orphaned and then turned into a maid/servant by her supposed guardians. The inter twining story tells of Roseanne’s “aunt” who has shown her great kindness and love, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Sad Music is Blue, Literally

In Only the Beautiful, the historical novel by Susan Meissner, readers are introduced to Rosanne "Rosie" Maras, a teenage girl who has lost her family and is placed under the care of her parents' former employers. To most, Rosie seems like a normal girl, but she's hiding a secret: when she hears sounds, she sees colors. When her secret is revealed—amidst other shocking discoveries—Rosie is sent to a state home where doctors try to "cure" her of what they deem a disability.

Today, Rosie's ability is known as synesthesia, defined as "a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway…leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." In other words, when...

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