In 1938, 16-year-old Rosanne’s life was permanently changed when her parents and brother were killed in a car accident. Her father had been the vinedresser at Celine and Truman Calvert’s California vineyard, and Rosanne had grown up surrounded by the idyllic setting’s peace, safety, and beauty. Only one thing marred her childhood---her parents’ warning that she must keep secret the fact that she sees colors and shapes when she hears sounds, and that numbers, names, and places have been assigned colors in her mind, a condition known today as synesthesia.
The Calverts become Rosanne’s guardians and she is hired as their live-in maid. The one bright light on Rosanne’s bleak horizon is the Calverts’ son, Wilson, who returns home periodically. But when Rosanne’s hope for a future with Wilson is dashed, her loneliness and alienation compel her to share her secret. This makes her vulnerable to emotional and romantic advances, and she becomes pregnant. When the Calverts force her to leave, Rosanne expects to be sent to a home for unwed pregnant girls. But the reality of her banishment is far worse--she is sent to Sonoma State Home for the Infirm, an institution which claims to care for “the mentally encumbered, the epileptic, the physically disabled, and the psychopathic delinquent.” Doctors strive to cure Rosanne of the colors she sees, submitting her to tests and, later, forcing her to undergo a life-changing procedure.
In 1947, Helen Calvert, Truman Calvert’s sister, lives daily with the decision she made when she worked as a nanny for the family of an Austrian army officer who served under Hitler’s Nazis. One of the family’s children, Brigitta, was vulnerable to Hitler’s evil program to weed out the old, the sick, the disabled, Jews, and others in their pursuit “to have no one around them but their idea of perfect people.”
When Helen--disillusioned and broken--returns to California after working for 40 years as a nanny in Europe, she visits her brother’s vineyard and asks about what happened to Rosanne, whom she had met and corresponded with. When she discovers the awful truth of how Rosanne had been treated, Helen embarks on a journey to learn more about what happened to the young woman. Helen discovers not only the terrible truth about the eugenics movement in the United States and the horrific consequences of what is happening in state institutions, but she also experiences renewal, acquires a new family and community, and discovers her passion to seek justice for people like Rosanne.
Author Susan Meissner is a Christian who writes mainstream novels. Her new novel for adults is a window into the stark horrors of the eugenics movement on two continents. In an author’s note, Meissner writes, “When I began the research to write Only the Beautiful at the start of the pandemic, I confess I didn’t know what the eugenics movement was. Many people I mention the term to now don’t, either. It’s a movement that has thankfully gone by the wayside, but sadly the ideology, I believe, is still with us, and that’s why I think the movement itself should not be forgotten. If we forget our history, we are more apt to repeat it, aren’t we? Hence this book.” (Berkley)