Set in 18th-century Milan, Playing by Heart is a symphony of romance and faith with an undercurrent of social commentary. Will Maria and Emilia’s father sacrifice their futures on the altar of his own ambitions to join the noble class? Carmela Martino’s new novel for teen readers explores family ties, vocations, and discernment of the best ways to use God-given gifts. Cue up some Vivaldi or Pachelbel and settle in for an intriguing tale.
This historical novel is based on the lives of two sisters, Maria Gaetana Agnesi and Maria Teresa Agnesi, who were gifted in much the same ways as the characters Maria and Emilia are. In the novel, Maria is deeply religious; her only desire is to enter a convent so she can work to serve the poor. But her father is unwilling to give up the social advantages he believes he can gain by showing off Maria’s abilities in languages and mathematics, as well as her younger sister Emilia’s musical talents. Carmela created a website that explains more about the life of the extraordinary Agnesi sisters.
While you’d expect that the spiritual elements of this novel would center on older sister Maria’s vocation to the religious life, this is not the case. I was surprised, as a reader, to see how much Emilia’s own spiritual life enters into the story. Throughout the novel, Emilia struggles with knowing the will of God for her life, with accepting tragedies that happen to her family, and with her realization that she is being called to make a sacrificial choice for the good of the sister she deeply loves.
Playing by Heart is written for a YA audience; I’d recommend it for readers in high school and up. I’d recommend it for adult readers as well. The story is intriguing and beautifully told, and really invites the reader into the world of the social climber in 18th-century Milan. This novel is a clean romance, steeped in history.