A thread of music — a hitherto undiscovered cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach — winds through the three stories interlocked in And After the Fire, by Lauren Belfer. It first comes into the possession of Sara Itzig Levy in 1796, a gift from her music tutor, who happens to be the son of the great J.S. Bach himself. When she discovers how anti-semitic the cantata is, though, she, a Jewish woman, is horrified. Much later, in 1945, an American soldier takes an old music manuscript from a deserted mansion, and kills a young woman who’s living there, and later still, in 2010, Susanna Kessler, niece of the American soldier, traumatized by an act of violence that shattered her world, inherits the manuscript and begins to search into its provenance, with the hope that she can make things right again. The more she learns about Sara and how that piece of music affected her and her family, the more she comes to see how her life and Sara’s are intertwined.
A different kind of World War II experience is related in The Book of Harlan, by Bernice L. McFadden. The main characters, Harlan and his best friend Lizard, are African American musicians living in Harlem just before WWII. Like many others in their position in that time, Harlan and Lizard are lured to Paris, to perform in a hot cafe in the Montmartre district, where their music is appreciated and they are likely to be treated better than in the segregated United States. Unfortunately for the two musicians, when Paris falls to the Nazis, the two of them are sent to the notorious concentration camp at Buchenwald, an experience that changes Harlan’s life forever after.
Going back in time a little bit to the 1920’s in New York City, A Fine Imitation by Amber Brock presents us with Vera Bellington, a woman who seems to have everything worth having: breeding, money, marriage to a man in the right social circle, and a penthouse on Park Avenue. Her life behind the shining surface, however, is lacking: her social connections are empty and her apartment too often is empty of anyone but herself as well. When a charming French artist moves into the building to paint a mural, Vera is intrigued and curious but also suspicious. She has some secrets of her own, from her days in Vassar College, when she became involved with a charming, exciting friend named Bea, who happened to be an art forger, and who nearly destroyed Vera’s future. Drawn into the secrets of the artist, Vera is forced to face her own past, and different possibilities of her future.
If you are, for any reason, looking for a historical novel set before 1900 (if, for instance, you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge), why not go farther back in time and read The Risen by David Anthony Durham, which takes us back to the days of the Roman Republic and the slave uprising led by the charismatic Spartacus, which nearly brought down the Republic and brought its legendary legions to the brink of unprecedented defeat. The outlines of the story are well known, being the basis for a classic film and a more recent television series, but Durham brings the more familiar scenario to vivid life, making us feel the amazing rise of the rebels and their heartbreaking defeat.