Unwavering Devotion in Unyielding Times

Only the Beautiful

By Susan Meissner

When Rosie begins working at the Calvert’s Vineyard as a maid, she begins taking cooking lessons from their French chef, Alphonse. While we may not be prepared to whip up the same ratatouille and coq au vin recipes that Alphonse was teaching Rosie, we can make this easy mini croque monsieur appetizer using puff pastries. The recipe from Butter and Baggage is sure to give your book club something delicious to snack on. Bon Appétit!

*** Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Only the Beautiful in exchange for my honest review. ***

I do not envy historical fiction writers.  

There are so many books surrounding the atrocities of World War II that it must be extremely difficult to come up with a unique storyline.  We have 80 years of memoirs, reimaginings, and well-researched histories to sift through, and there are only so many perspectives an author can explore.

Leave it to Susan Meissner to find one.

Only the Beautiful was one of my most-anticipated books for the spring.  I loved Bright as Heaven, and I had faith that Meissner would deliver a beautiful story.  

I was right.

Only the Beautiful is divided into two perspectives, and each perspective includes flashbacks to the recent past.  The book opens with Rosie’s story.  First, we meet Rosie in June 1938 when she has just suffered the unimaginable loss of being the sole survivor of a family car accident.  Suddenly orphaned and without her parents and brother, Rosie’s neighbors, Truman and Celine Calvert, agree to become her guardians.  Celine owns their nearby vineyard and employed Rosie’s father before he was killed.  Instead of making her part of the family, however, Celine decides to keep Rosie as their maid.   Few things bring Rosie joy in her new life, but she does love receiving letters from Truman’s sister, Helen.  Helen lives in Austria and works as a nanny.  She hears about Rosie’s tragedy and begins writing to her.  Rosie cherishes the letters but stops the correspondence when she decides that she can’t continue to withhold her special ability from Helen.  Rosie can see colors when she hears a sound.  Her parents treated this ability like something that needed to be hidden, so Rosie would rather stop talking to Helen than suffer through the fallout of telling her about her ability.  Helen eventually stops writing to her but still sends Rosie a beautiful flowering amaryllis to help her get through her first Christmas without her family.  Rosie thinks the flower is breathtaking, and it quickly becomes one of her most prized possessions.

One weekend, Celine leaves for a trip, leaving Rosie alone with Truman in the house.  It is Rosie’s birthday, so Truman gives her a drink to celebrate. Truman realizes that Celine does not treat Rosie very well, but he seems to admire her.  He proceeds to get drunk as a skunk, misread cues, and then rape Rosie.  

Rosie’s second timeline occurs nearly a year later.  She is pregnant with the result of Truman’s rape, and Celine is sending her away.  Instead of merely terminating her parental rights and sending her to a home for unwed mothers, Celine is out for revenge—she sends Rosie to a mental institution knowing full well that they will likely sterilize her after the baby is born. Rosie gives birth to a daughter, whom she names Amaryllis. The baby is forcibly taken from her and put into a foster home. A heartbroken Rosie eventually gets discharged from the institution and tries to forge a life without her daughter.

The second perspective is that of Helen Calvert. Helen is a middle-aged nanny for the Maier family, who lives in Austria.  The Maiers have six children.  Brigitta, the youngest of the children, is physically disabled and requires Helen’s constant care.  Johannes, the father, is a Nazi officer.  As the war continues to heat up, Helen discovers the true nature of the Nazis’ atrocities.  She travels back to America and discovers what her brother did to Rosie.  The search for sweet little Rosie will soon introduce her to the family that she never had.  

Even though Only the Beautiful is set around the time of World War II, it addresses the horrors of the eugenics movement more than it does the concentration camps.  Meissner draws an uncomfortable parallel between the United States’ practice of sterilizing women who were deemed “dangerous” and what the Nazis were doing to disabled people.  Both societies regarded certain groups as “unworthy,” leading to calls for their eradication.  Both Rosie’s and Helen’s stories feature an antagonist who used scientific logic and reasoning to excuse the killing of innocent people.  It’s enough to make you squirm in your chair.  

While Only the Beautiful features several sad moments, it is also a stunning tale of love.  Rosie and Helen fight for the ones they love.  They are strong.  They are relentless.  And, they are survivors.  They might now always have influence when compared to those around them, but they make sure to use what little voice they have to change the world.

There was never a moment when I considered giving Only the Beautiful less than five stars.  If you enjoy historical fiction, this book should be one that you do not miss.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

My Rating System Explained

5 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️:  This was an amazing book, and I can't stop thinking about it.   It impacted me emotionally or changed my perspective.  My thoughts keep flickering back to it at random times throughout the day.  I will absolutely recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs.

4 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️:  This was a really good book.  Parts of it stuck with me, and I might mention it in a conversation.  There is a high likelihood that I will recommend it to my friends or to one of my book clubs.

3 Stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️:  I liked this book.  It allowed me to escape from reality for a while.  While I might tell somebody about it if I think it will interest them, I will probably not suggest it to one of my book clubs.

2 Stars ⭐️⭐️:  There's something about this book that I didn't like.  I wasn't willing to go all the way down to a one-star rating, but I'm definitely not digging it.  I may recognize that this book is not for me, but it might be for other people.  I will not recommend it to my friends or one of my book clubs.

1 Star ⭐️:  My rarest rating.  I really didn't like this book.  Something in the story line upset me, and I probably "hate-read" the majority of the book.  Not only will I not recommend it, but I will actively tell people that I did not like it.

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