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.
Review copy recieved via NetGalley.
My feelings about Playing by Heart ended up being pretty mixed because it didn’t start out very well, the writing felt weirdly clunky (lots of short sentences make a weird rhythm) and I didn’t like Emilia that much, but the book ended up growing on me. I think the book took a turn for the better when Emilia’s mother died and left the family dealing with that and Emilia starts thinking about something other than wanting to get married and whining about being in her sister’s shadow and even their dad becomes maybe a bit more human. Not gonna lie, the mother’s death actually made me cry too.
I expected this book to be more romance focused, but that part turned out to be a bit more of a side plot and the more important thing was actually Emilia and Maria’s relationship. It was nice to see Emilia slowly get over her jealousy towards her older sister and realize she actually had talents of her own. She made some really unselfish decisions in order to protect Maria too.
Emilia’s crush on Antonio develops a little too fast in my opinion, she literally decides in like two seconds that hey actually I like this guy instead of hating him. At least the original dislike comes more from rivalry since they’re both musicians rather than Antonio actually being a douche or something. He’s just an awkward boy.
The Author’s notes at the end reveal that Maria and Emilia are actually based on historical siblings with the exact same skillsets that they have in the book (languages and science for Maria, music and composing for Emilia), and I thought that was pretty cool. Luckily the book sisters achieve their dreams in a nicer way than their real life counterparts who actually just waited for their father to drop dead before they got to do the things they wanted in life. Book father was a bit easier to persuade, but that required a whole lot of good luck too. I really can’t imagine living in a world where girls needed to ask for their father’s or husband’s permission to do basically anything.
Despite the rocky start Playing by Heart left me with happy feels in the end, so it wasn’t a bad introduction to YA historical fiction to me. It had a lot of nice female characters (even a stepmother that’s actually a good person!) which is always great and it was a pretty easy quick read once I got into it properly.