And after the fire A novel

Lauren Belfer

Book - 2016

"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 gi...rl 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 1796, 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"--

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Historical fiction
New York : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers [2016]
First edition
Physical Description
451 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 439-447) and index.
Main Author
Lauren Belfer (author)
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* An invaluable piece of music poses ethical questions in this compelling blend of fact and fiction. As Susanna Kessler goes through the house of her late Uncle Henry, who was like a father to her, she finds what appears to be a Bach cantata. In the accompanying note, her uncle who served in Germany in WWII refers to family members lost in Europe, which had been kept secret from her, and the problem posed by the music because of its virulent anti-Semitic text. With the help of Bach authority Dr. Daniel Erhardt and his colleagues, nonpracticing Jew Susanna seeks to authenticate the document while ruminating over what to do with it. In alternating chapters, Belfer traces the provenance of the cantata from eighteenth-century Prussia while fleshing out the personal lives of Susanna (whose marriage fell apart after she was raped) and Daniel (who lost his strong Lutheran faith after his wife and son died). Based on impressive research, this remarkable novel spans centuries and continents, touching finally on the Holocaust and serving as a paean to Bach's music while acknowledging the composer's expressed hatred of Jews. Absorbing historical fiction in which a masterwork is sullied by long-simmering prejudice that erupts in genocide.--Leber, Michele Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In Belfer's compelling third novel, an American soldier in 1945 Germany unknowingly purloins a controversial unpublished cantata by the great Johann Sebastian Bach, and it ends up in the hands of the soldier's niece, Susanna Kessler, upon his death. The journey of this manuscript, with lyrics based on one of Martin Luther's anti-Jewish screeds, from Sara Itzig Levy-a Jewish student of Bach's eldest son and the real-life budding doyenne of Berlin's upper echelons-to America is interspersed with Susanna's own inner trajectory to finding normalcy and love in her life after being raped. The author's strengths lie in the historical passages, starting with the 1780s when Sara receives the cantata as a young woman, and continuing through her rise in society, her subsequent marriage, and her confidential gift of the manuscript to her beloved niece's daughter, Fanny (sister to Felix Mendelssohn). Fanny leaves it in a piano bench, where it's discovered by Susanna's uncle. Belfer's (A Fierce Radiance) comprehensive research brings depth and veracity to the novel, intertwining real-life figures and events from the past with the modern-day story and detailing the strong currents of anti-Semitism that have existed in Germany for centuries. The people in Susanna's life, as well as the contemporary situations Belfer portrays, are not as strongly drawn, and the passages about romance and sexual attraction in both the modern and historic realms never quite work. Nevertheless, this is an immersive, page-turning story emboldened by historical fact and a rich imagination. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

In this work of historical fiction by Belfer (A Fierce Radiance), Susanna Kessler is cleaning out her Uncle Henry's desk when she finds a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. Her attempts to prove its authenticity and understand the context of its inflammatory text send Susanna and archival musicologist Dan to Berlin and then to the remains of the Buchenwald concentration camp. In alternating chapters, readers are immersed in the life of Sara Itzig, a piano student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the eldest son of Johann, who presents Sara with multiple pieces of original music as a wedding gift, including this controversial cantata. Later we meet musical luminaries of the 1780s-1850s as we visit several of Sara's famous concerts, whose attendees include Felix Mendelssohn and his little-known sister, Fanny Hensel, a musician and composer in her own right. -VERDICT Belfer has created a fascinating historical novel and poignant love story that will open the eyes and ears of music lovers and please those who enjoy a graceful, spellbinding tale pondering important questions-in particular, how we live with the consequences of the Holocaust and whether we can enjoy art created by anti-Semites. [See Prepub Alert, 11/23/15; "Editors' Spring Picks," LJ 2/15/16, p. 30.]-Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

A literary thriller about the improbable discovery of a manuscript lost at the end of World War II. Susanna Kessler is mourning the death of her uncle when she discovers, in his home, an old manuscript that appears to be signed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Susanna's uncle, an American soldier who fought in the second world war, found the document in an old mansion in Weimar and took it with him when he left. Now the manuscript is Susanna's; enlisting the help of two scholars, Daniel Erhardt and Scott Schiffman, she begins a search to discover the manuscript's origins and to confirm its authenticity. But this is no simple task. The manuscript consists of an anti-Jewish cantata written by J.S. Bach, a work brimful of hatred, prejudice, and violence. Susanna, Dan, and Scott can't help wondering if they'd be better off destroying the cantata instead of introducing it to the world. Belfer (A Fierce Radiance, 2010, etc.) skillfully weaves this story together with a much older one: in 1783, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of Johann Sebastian, gives the hateful cantata to his beloved music student Sara Itzig, who also happens to be Jewish. Belfer then traces Sara's ownership of the cantata through the first half of the 19th century and through the various vicissitudes of Sara's family history. Gradually, these two stories merge to reveal how the manuscript ended up in Susanna's hands. It's a remarkably suspenseful story, a literary thriller in the tradition of A.S. Byatt's Possession. Unfortunately, Belfer doesn't have Byatt's subtlety or wit. Her characters are flat and two-dimensional despite the personal crises that more than a few of them endure. Dan, for example, can't reconcile his religious faith with the death of his wife. "How could an all-powerful, all-loving God let Julie die?" he wonders. "He hoped that someday he would come to understand God's mysterious ways." Here and elsewhere, Belfer's prose can be blunt and lifeless. Still, the force of her engrossing story wins out in the end. A story about art, prejudice, faith, and trauma engrosses but doesn't fully convince. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.