Only the Beautiful [Book Review] #HistoricalFiction @BerkleyPub

Only the Beautiful is a compelling and haunting historical fiction story about eugenics and forced sterilization.

Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner

Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner (cover) Image: 2 adults and w children dance around in a circle bordered by flowers

Genre/Categories/Setting: Historical Fiction, Eugenics, U.S., Vienna

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

My Summary of Only the Beautiful:

Thanks #NetGalley @BerkleyPub #BerkelyWritesStrongWomen #BerkleyBuddyReads for a complimentary e ARC of #OnlyTheBeautiful upon my request. All opinions are my own.

Told in two timelines, Only the Beautiful recounts (in two parts) the stories of Rosie, an orphan taken in by the Calverts, and Helen, the sister of Mr. Calvert. In part one, Rosie is mistreated by Mrs. Calvert and dearly misses her parents’. Rosie has a condition (synesthesia) that she attempts to hide from everyone. In unfortunate circumstances, Rosie ends up pregnant and is shopped off to a home for unwed mothers. While there, her condition is discovered and Rosie is labeled as unfit and faces sterilization.  After Rosie has left the institution, Helen returns to the U.S. and asks the Calverts about Rosie. Part two is devoted to Helen and her attempts to find Rosie.

My Thoughts:


(***May contain spoilers)

It’s unusual that I need to give so many content warnings for a Susan Meissner story. While this compelling story is well-researched and well-written, the subject matter is difficult and disturbing. Trigger warnings include death of parents, mistreatment of a child, an adult/minor sexual act with no consent, unwanted pregnancy, institutionalization, involuntary euthanasia, forced relinquishment of a child, and forced sterilization.


The story is divided into Part One and Part Two. Part One is Rosie’s story and Part Two is Helen’s. There are no alternating time lines. I became attached to Rosie and was deeply concerned about her dire situation and uncertain future, so I was dismayed when the story abruptly switched to Helen’s perspective. I became a reluctant reader at this point. Eventually, I became immersed in Helen’s story and appreciated her earnest efforts to find Rosie. Along with Helen, I wondered what had happened to her. The women’s stories converge in the end and we get some answers about Rosie’s life. This is a satisfying conclusion, but I really missed hearing about Rosie’s life from her own perspective.

Thought-Provoking Themes

The practice of forced sterilization is definitely disturbing. Meissner exposes the unfortunate history of this practice in the U.S. Other themes include determination, resilience, courage, a mother’s unrelenting love, and found family.

Recommending Only the Beautiful

If you are OK with the content, I’m certainly recommending Only the Beautiful for fans of Meissner and historical fiction. The story is compelling and page-turning, and the title of the book is haunting in light of the content.

Related: Other books by Susan Meissner I’ve reviewed are As Bright As Heaven, A Fall of Marigolds, The Nature of Fragile Things, and The Last Year of the War. (Nature of Fragile Things is my fav closely followed by As Bright As Heaven and Marigolds)

My Rating:  4  Stars


Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner (cover) Image: a picture of a woman and three children holding hands in a circle bordered by flowers

More Information Here

Meet the Author of Only the Beautiful, Susan Meissner Author of Only the Beautiful, As Bright As Heaven, A Fall of Marigolds, The Last Year of the War, and The Nature of Fragile Things, Susan Meissner (head shot, wearing a coral cardigan leaning against a wood slat wall)

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 at on Twitter at @SusanMeissner or on Facebook at


Is this new release from Meissner on your TBR?

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  1. Great review! It’s been a while since I’ve read one of Susan Meissner’s books, but I’ve really enjoyed those I have read. I think next up for me would be The Nature of Fragile Things, but I’ll keep this one in mind too.

  2. This sounds interesting Carol, but not sure if I’d want to read it after your reviews and warnings – thanks for being so honest!

  3. I read a Diane Chamberlain book last year, Necessary Lies, that also dealt with the terrible history of forced sterilization and how it was endorsed and actually pushed by the government at the time. It was very sad to read about, but I think if is an important issue. I am definitely going to read this one. Wonderful and well thought out review for a book that has a lot of possible triggers, Carol.

    • Oh yes! I was trying to think of that book! I knew I read one that dealt with forced sterilization and that must be the one! It’s a difficult and tragic subject.

  4. Somehow, this latest book by Susan Meissner wasn’t even on my radar! I enjoyed The Nature of Fragile Things and The Last Year of the War, so I look forward to reading this one — in spite of the subject matter. I just finished reading The Last Carolina Girl, by Meagan Church. It deals with eugenics, too, which is quite sobering to read about.

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