Monday, September 19, 2016

And After the Fire - Lauren Belfer

Summary: The New York Times-bestselling author of A Fierce Radiance and City of Light returns with a new powerful and passionate novel—inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.

In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him.

In America in 2010, Henry’s niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family’s history—and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past.

In Berlin, Germany, in 1783, amid the city’s glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach’s son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come.

Interweaving the stories of Susanna and Sara, and their families, And After the Fire traverses over two hundred years of history, from the eighteenth century through the Holocaust and into today, seamlessly melding past and present, real and imagined. Lauren Belfer’s deeply researched, evocative, and compelling narrative resonates with emotion and immediacy. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  I’ve been very, very vocal about how stringently I critique time jump novels.  Writers, take note:  This is how it’s done.  The two stories Belfer tells, the story of an unpublished, never performed, inflammatory in words but exquisite in music cantata written by the Master himself is so perfectly handled.  The stories are dependent on each other, and both are well-crafted, well researched, and touching in their own rights.  The story of the fictional cantata, entrusted to a Jewish aristocrat in 1783 and kept from the public until, through a series of twists and turns, it falls into the hands of the present day protagonist Susanna, enraptured me.  I was taken with the love that Sara showed her niece and nephews and their progeny, I loved nearly every main character that touched the cantata, trusting their discretion and valor.

Belfer’s novel deals with a few main themes, chiefly the recovery from sexual assault, anti-Semitism not only in 18th century Europe but in today’s society as well, the loss of one’s faith, and intertwined in it all is the role that music plays in soothing, healing, and uplifting a soul.  Obviously, this is slightly bittersweet. But the masterful way Belfer handled these themes, juxtaposing the doubts of one of the protagonists with the peace he feels listening to a particular section of Bach made me ache for my days working at the Utah Symphony.  Her deft writing ability was able to simply portray the problems while allowing the reader to view them and draw conclusions based on their own life experiences, not having Belfer’s desire for the text forcefully imposed upon them.  I loved that.  I love it when I put down a book and are able to think about it for a while, how it impacted me as a reader, whether it made me a better person, or wondering how I could improve.  Books like that are ones I’m happy to recommend.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Susanna is raped and recalls the rape in simple honesty. The theme of recovering emotionally and physically from the assault are key themes in the book, and it’s mentioned frequently.  There is also a love scene that is fairly blunt, although sweet and sensitively written.  

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