In this historical novel set in the 19th century, a young woman of uncommon musical talent longs for the freedom that’s typically reserved for men.
A year after her mother died, Emily Alden, a precocious 13-year-old, is sent from her native England to New York City and entrusted to the care of the de Koningh family as her perpetually busy father, Lord Alden, attends to his own affairs. She’s achingly lonely but quickly makes friends with Corey de Koningh, a tenderhearted boy who’s one year her junior. The two bond over a shared passion for music—he’s a nimble-fingered pianist, and she wants to learn the violin but is forbidden to do so by her father, who thinks it unbecoming for a girl. Nevertheless, Robert Haussmann, Corey’s music instructor, takes her under his wing and tutors her. They discover that she’s unusually gifted and could go far, if she was only given the opportunity. Years later, while wasting away at an oppressive finishing school, Emily is reunited with both Corey and Robert—the former is still playing piano and composing music, although his father, Klaas, seems to encourage neither. Stark (Twilight Perspectives, 2016) artfully chronicles the intersecting lives of the three musicians, which are complicated by the attraction that both men harbor for Emily. The author masterfully sets the historical stage—the United States as it devolves into the Civil War—and she addresses the issue of slavery with nuance and rigor. Klaas secretly works for the Underground Railroad, and both Corey and Emily end up joining the cause, as well, in a riveting storyline. Emily is a delightfully complex mix of defiance and prudence, as she learns early in life that “there’s a very narrow line to negotiate between freedom and responsibility for women” in her era. Stark’s prose is reliably lucid and consistently faithful to the setting, although it’s sometimes a touch saccharine: “ ‘Why can’t we let each other alone?’ [Emily] whispered, shuddering. ‘The world might be a better place if it had only artists living in it.’ ”
An emotionally affecting and historically edifying tale.