BOOK REVIEW: ‘Playing by Heart’ Carmela Martino


She could compose anything . . . except the life she wanted.


Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as much as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, her position as “second sister” means she’ll likely be sent off to a convent instead. Ironically, Emilia’s pious older sister, Maria, would gladly become a nun. But Father won’t allow it—her brilliant language skills are too important to his quest for noble status. Emilia’s only hope to avoid the convent is to prove that her musical talents are as indispensable as Maria’s skills. First, Emilia must earn the respect of the music tutor who has always disdained her, simply for being a girl. But before Emilia can carry out her plan, Mamma, her greatest supporter, dies in childbirth.

In her sorrow, Emilia composes a heartrending sonata that causes the maestro to finally recognize her talent. He begins teaching her music theory alongside handsome violinist Antonio Bellini, the great-nephew of a wealthy marquis. The two begin as rivals, but making music together gradually melds their hearts. When Antonio abruptly quits their lessons, Emilia assumes it’s because her family isn’t nobility. More determined than ever to help Father acquire a title, she dedicates a set of compositions to Archduchess Maria Teresa. The archduchess is so impressed that she helps Father become a count. Having finally won Father’s favor, Emilia expects she’ll now be betrothed to Antonio. But the repercussions of her family’s new status threaten not only her dreams, but her sister’s very life.


This was a really lovely historical romance for teen readers—and indeed, I think adults would enjoy it as well. The characters were nicely drawn, and realistic, and the plot worked well. Faith was present in the characters’ lives and actions, without being preachy or ‘in your face’ (yey!).

One of the things I most enjoyed was how vividly and convincingly Martino drew the historical period. I especially appreciated the lack of the politically correct anachronisms that you find shoe-horned into so many historicals nowadays. For example, the young women in the story accept that their fathers will be the ones to decide who they marry, and whilst they work in such ways as they can to influence their fathers’ choices, there’s no twentieth century railing against the injustice of their predicament. Unjust, it certainly is, but they would not, then, have perceived it so—it was a fact of life—and it is refreshing that Martino presents things like this authentically.

Many of the descriptions are beautiful, as well, such as, ‘I heard music everywhere—in the whispering of the wind and the rustling of the trees.’ I also very much enjoyed the information at the end about the real life sisters that inspired the novel.

I will say that the synopsis did mislead me into expecting that something dramatic—in the ‘action’ sense of the word, would transpire later in the book, but by the time I actually reached the end, this misunderstanding had been cleared up, so it had no impact on my enjoyment and simply provided a good hook for part of the novel!

My one real (but extremely minor) niggle would be that the ending seemed very abrupt, and when the novel ended (trying to express this without spoilers!) characters were acting as though something was definite, that was in fact not definite, and which could quite easily have been completely altered by the occurrence of a far from unlikely event. Maybe I am just a paranoid pessimist, but I certainly felt that if I were any one of the characters, there is no way I would be assuming all was settled at that moment in time. It is possible that we were supposed to assume all would go as planned on the basis of a particular dream someone had had, but all the same, I would have at least liked an Epilogue, even just one paragraph, to confirm what actually did transpire.

A minor niggle, though, and I certainly look forward to reading other books by this author.


[I received a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. The author is a fellow member of ‘Catholic Teen Books’.]


2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: ‘Playing by Heart’ Carmela Martino

  1. Thanks for this lovely review! I appreciate your honesty about the ending (and not giving “spoilers” in the process). In my mind, all was settled happily for the main characters. However, I left something unresolved for a minor character because I hope to write another novel with her as the star. 🙂


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