A talented, orphaned cellist wrestles with aspiration, abandonment, and family in Teter’s YA debut.
From 1703-1740, the famed violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi wrote most of his concertos and cantatas for the orchestra at the Ospedale della Pietà, a convent, orphanage, and music school in Venice, Italy, whose concerts—performed by the Pietà’s all-female musicians—helped bring in donations. Abandoned when she was a baby, teenage Isabella dal Cello dreams of studying under Don Vivaldi and playing a concerto solo he would write just for her. She’s proven herself to be not only one of the Pietà’s most promising cellists, but also a constant nuisance to the orphanage’s stern head nun, Signora Priora. To discipline Isabella for sneaking out during carnevale, the prioress commands Isabella to teach the cello to Monica, a severely burned newcomer who survived a fire that claimed her parents. Along with helping Monica master cello basics and adjust to life in the Pietà, Isabella indulges her best friend Catherine’s “childish belief” that her mother will one day return for her; bids farewell to her cello teacher, Cecilia, as she leaves the orphanage for married life; and contemplates the advances of Niccolò Morelli, the son of a prosperous family who seems to have marriage on his mind. But, as Cecilia reminds Isabella, leaving the Pietà behind also means leaving the cello behind—to avoid competition, the orphanage forbids its former musicians from playing in public. Cecilia’s marks the first of several emotional departures that dismay Isabella, who eventually must decide whether to continue her life in the Pietà or finally live outside its walls. In Isabella, Teter has created a remarkably sympathetic character, even (perhaps especially) when she’s acting most selfishly, such as immediately thinking, upon seeing Monica’s burned face, that “this girl can never play a wind instrument.” One plotline drags in the novel’s first third—an initially suspenseful flashback about the carnevale incident fizzles out—but from there Teter wisely lets her characters drive the story forward.
To paraphrase her heroine, Teter’s novel rarely just hits the notes—it sings.