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I think the romantic thread injected into the narrative diminished the actual message.

And After the Fire - Lauren Belfer

And After the Fire When this book began, I was immediately drawn into it as it described an incident at the end of WWII. However, when it began to alternate between the lives of Sara Levy, a brilliant musician, in the late 1700’s and Susanna Kessler, in 2010, it veered off into many different directions. In 1945, two friends and soldiers, Pete and Henry, were spending their last day in Germany driving around. Although they had fought in the war in Germany, they had never really seen any part of the country. They didn’t believe they would ever return, so they decided to “sightsee” in Weimar, where they were stationed, before the Russians arrived to take over the following day. While driving around in their jeep, they came upon a beautiful neighborhood and noticed a home they believed was unoccupied. Although one of them objected a bit, they both entered the home and began to look around. Henry Sachs believed the owners were dead and decided to take a souvenir, although, he had never stolen anything before. Most of the soldiers had taken memorabilia and sent it home to their families, their crimes going undiscovered. Suddenly, both young men were surprised by a disturbed woman who appeared frail and frightened. She threatened them and uttered Jewish slurs. Unable to calm down, she proceeded to fire her weapon and wounded one of them. The other, Henry Sachs, shot and killed her. Although it was self-defense, Henry carried the memory of the murder with him for the rest of his life, but the theft of an object called an “autograph”, from the piano bench in that house, which might be a missing piece of Bach’s music, would torment him as well. He would never reveal what he had taken to anyone. Why was the cantata hidden in plain sight? Why would someone have wanted to hide it? Why was it never published? The search for those answers is the central theme of the book; in that effort, it goes on to reveal the lives of two women, from two different centuries, one real, one fictional. It also highlights the rich and famous of the time from Johann Sebastian Bach and his heirs, to Moses Mendelssohn and his heirs, with many mentions of other famous composers of that era. The lives of Susanna Kessler, who lived in New York in the present day, and Sara Levy who was part of the past, in the late 18th century in Berlin, were alternately revealed, as the history of, and their possible connection to, the papers Henry had kept hidden was explored. In an effort to trace the piece of music found in that Weimar home, as to its actual origin and composer and as to how it found its way into the piano bench in Weimar, in the first place, is the focus of this book. As the history of that home and the families who lived in that upper class neighborhood were revealed, similarities between the lives of the two women were exposed. However, I found much of their comparisons and connections unnatural, as if they were inserted simply to create relevance in order to advance the plot. It often seemed forced and disconnected. Sara’s knowledge and love of music seemed marvelously genuine while Susanna’s emotional reaction and love for it seemed to appear out of nowhere. Sara’s great love for her husband, a man whose memory she honored, was in sharp contrast to Susanna’s husband, a man she struggled to forget, a man who had left her after she had experienced a brutal rape. It seemed it was he, who was too traumatized by the attack to remain with her. Both of the women’s families had endured religious controversy in a number of ways. They were affected by the anti-Semitism rampant around them in the time periods in which they lived. Some were influenced by an outright rejection of religion and/or the conversion to another. Both interacted with the wealthy and the prominent. One was a philanthropist and one worked for philanthropists. Both women were strong willed and both were childless. Both also were intelligent and highly respected. Although their lives and worlds existed in wholly different times and on different social planes, their lifestyles and personalities were similar. After Susanna’s Uncle Henry ended his life, she had to go to his home to clean out his things. It was she who discovered a letter revealing the location of the papers that her uncle had stolen from the Weimar home. She was forced to face many difficult decisions after their discovery. As she proceeded to deal with the possibly authentic and previously unknown work by John Sebastian Bach, the events that connected her to Sara Levy become apparent. However, although the book is well researched with regard to its history, coincidences in Susanna’s life seemed to conveniently occur. It seems she just happened to walk by a Lutheran Church and notice that they were having a Lutheran speaker on Bach at the same time as she wondered about her uncle’s “gift”. Then she just happened to recover from her trauma enough to develop a relationship with the Bach expert as they began to research the origins of the cantata her uncle had taken. She seemed unrealistically naïve when it came to the value of the property she was in possession of and her desire to possibly destroy or sell it seemed also to be sometimes very short sighted. Could so well educated a woman truly be that naïve as to the value of the documents she possessed. Was it possible to return them to their rightful owners? There seemed to be a contradiction in her behavior. The idea that there was a missing Bach Cantata that was totally anti-Semitic that somehow wound up in the hands of Jews who had hidden it and protected it from the world until Susanna became aware of it and exposed it, seemed fraught with challenges. How did the score of such a piece remain hidden for 65 years having been passed on to several owners? Why had no one explored the contents of the piano bench in the home it was found? Wasn’t the idea that it had remained in that piano bench, and then in a drawer, untouched by any family a bit of an incongruity? Had this story about the possibility of the discovery of a missing anti-Semitic Bach score been kept simple and been presented as a discussion of the history of the music and of the anti-Semitism that was probably experienced by the Mendelssohn’s from the likes of the Bach’s, in Germany, it would have been far more interesting to me. However, Susanna, who suddenly morphed into somewhat of a musical scholar and then as a love object of several men, seemed like the stuff of fairy tales. The tangential information around her life seemed to be nothing but unnecessary window dressing. It would have been more credible to me had she simply been working with experts or colleagues in order to discover the origin of the missing piece of music. In addition, to what end did the author insert current day liberal objectives which lent nothing to the historic importance of the story, other than in one instance in which the need to preserve the papers in a controlled and healthy environment was stressed? The more important and prominent historic theme about how the Jewish members of society in Germany were treated, and the hints that grew up about how the increasing development of confrontational behavior signaled the coming of greater anti-Semitism, could have been more fully developed. It foreshadowed that as economic problems grew, Jews would be once again blamed and resented. They became more of a target and that might possibly have been the reason why the previously unknown piece by Bach was hidden. It was vehemently anti-Semitic. The author took a book which to my mind would have been a fine literary experience and diminished it by including unnecessary sex and language, as in the use of the crude term “laid” when referring to someone’s need for sex. She obviously did a lot of research, but that research paled for me when the tangents took over, when Susanna took on the self-important attitude of a scholar on the subject of lost musical pieces, although she had no knowledge whatsoever of music, when she suddenly didn’t trust anyone else to care for the “autograph”, when she began to entertain the romantic advances of the men involved. There seemed to be an excess of extraneous dialogue. In addition, I often felt as if each chapter fell off the cliff unexpectedly when another suddenly began in a new time zone. There didn’t seem to be a cohesive continuity. However, the resolution of what to do with the lost cantata was, I suspect, the only satisfying conclusion.