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And After the Fire


And After the Fire

In her third novel, Lauren Belfer, the author of the New York Time bestselling CITY OF LIGHT and the critically acclaimed A FIERCE RADIANCE, interweaves multiple storylines that span centuries and continents to create one cohesive, thoughtful narrative on religion, bigotry and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is AND AFTER THE FIRE in a nutshell. Upon cracking open that nutshell, a delightfully complex piece of historical fiction spills out.

The book stars an eclectic cast of both real and fictional characters: Susanna Kessler, the bright and principled heroine struggling to come to terms with a dark moment in her recent past; Dan Erhardt, a young widower, devout Lutheran and Bach scholar at Granville College; Sara Itzig Levy, a talented musician and beloved aristocrat, the daughter of King Frederick the Great’s Master of the Mint; and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach’s troubled eldest son who is Sara’s music teacher during the late 18th century. Friedemann treasures Sara above all else --- she is not just his favorite pupil, she is his only one, and her Jewish heritage does not stop him from loving her as if she were his own daughter, despite his anti-Semitic sentiments. In fact, it is being her tutor that causes him to question his bigotry. This internal turmoil comes to a head when, knowing he does not have much longer to live, Friedemann gives Sara a disturbing wedding gift: the original manuscript of one of his father’s unpublished and violently anti-Semitic cantatas.

"The reality that Sara Itzig Levy and her family are steeped in allows Belfer to take her audience through an engrossing plot, as well as show off her skills at character development."

Sara is understandably hurt by this ugly present but comes to realize that her old master did not want it to be released into the world, and that she is the only one he can trust to keep it hidden. So she files it away and lives a long and fulfilling life. Yet as Sara ages and eventually dies, Germany turns back from a cultural renaissance into darker times. Virulent anti-Semitism rises once more to the forefront of national conversation, and the fate of the manuscript becomes precarious. Nevertheless, it remains secret and is passed down to Itzig descendants until, by World War II, it has made its way into the hands of a bourgeois Jewish family. Here, Susanna Kessler’s story intersects with Sara Levy’s.

Susanna’s uncle is a young American soldier marching through Germany after the Allied victory. He and his comrade trespass through an abandoned mansion in Weimar, where he takes a manuscript from the piano bench as a souvenir. A teenage German girl tries to stop them, and Henry mistakenly shoots her dead. He feels great remorse about the theft and murder for the rest of his life, both of which he keeps secret until Susanna discovers these crimes after his suicide. Her uncle has willed her the manuscript.

At this time, Susanna is lost in an emotional vacuum. Not long ago, she survived a horrific rape and subsequently went through a heartbreaking divorce. Ever since, she has been on a quest that she herself cannot quite determine: all she knows is that she is seeking a connection to something greater than her temporal existence. When the manuscript falls into her hands, she brings it to Granville for Dan Erhardt to evaluate. He recognizes its value almost immediately, and the two embark on a journey to find out the truth about the manuscript.

Upon finishing AND AFTER THE FIRE, I truly wished that it could live up to the excitement its jacket flap promises. While it contains most of the factors that make a great book, such as a strong narrative voice, a defined literary style, and a number of gripping plot complications, Belfer invests far too much time on Susanna and Dan’s story. They are arguably the two most boring characters, and their plot turns much of the novel into a slog. Fortunately, their contemporaries are entertaining enough to read about, which ultimately makes the Dan and Susanna storyline forgivable.

However, the best parts of AND AFTER THE FIRE are undoubtedly the historical moments. The reality that Sara Itzig Levy and her family are steeped in allows Belfer to take her audience through an engrossing plot, as well as show off her skills at character development. This alone makes the book worthy of a reader’s consideration.

Reviewed by Alex Bowditch on July 8, 2016

And After the Fire
by Lauren Belfer