Book Review – Playing By Heart

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Book Review of Playing by Heart by Carmela Martino

Emilia Salvini dreams of marrying a man who loves music as she does. But in 18th-century Milan, being the “second sister” means she’ll likely be sent to a convent instead. Emilia’s only hope is to prove her musical talents crucial to her father’s quest for nobility. First, though, she must win over her music tutor, who disdains her simply for being a girl. Too late, Emilia realizes that her success could threaten not only her dreams for her future but her sister’s very life.

Playing by Heart is inspired by two amazing sisters who were far ahead of their time—one a mathematician and the other a composer. At its core, the novel is the story of two teens struggling to follow their true calling, even when it conflicts with their father’s goals. It’s a clean historical romance appropriate for ages 12 and up.


This beautifully written Young Adult novel centers around the strong faith of two sisters, Emilia and Maria, and their extraordinary talents. The book is set in 18th Century Milan, Italy and focuses on their relationships with their father, as well as their struggle to follow the paths they believe God wants them to take. Unfortunately, they lived in a time when young women were subject to their father’s wishes. And their father hoped to showcase their incredible gifts to advance himself to nobility and was not interested in their desires.

This is the first book I’ve read by this author and loved her writing style. In fact, the moment I finished the book, I read her first novel Rosa Sola, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. Her beautiful descriptions bring her books to life. I found the passages describing Emilia’s music particularly lovely. The author does a wonderful job of showing society and culture of 18th century Italy. This time period makes for a very interesting book, especially for young women, to see the choices and educational opportunities available to girls their age at that time in history.

This book highlights something that’s near and dear to my heart – that we all have gifts from God and we should find ways to use these gifts to help others. I loved that these young women knew their talents were from God and they longed to use them in a positive way. I also really liked the underlying passages of jealousy. This is something we all can relate to, feeling envious of another’s successes. How Emilia deals with this and works through it is a wonderful example for readers to emulate.

This historic fiction, inspired by two real sisters who lived in 18th Century Italy, would make a fantastic bookclub or classroom choice, full of many great topics for discussion.

A Note from the reviewer: 

As a writer and a mother, I’m always searching for wonderful Christian books for teens of all ages. I truly believe one way we can encourage teens in their faith is through fiction with positive messages, embedded in great stories. There are many fantastic Christian and Catholic teen novels out today but they can be hard to find. I’m excited to share some of these books with you.

Leslea Wahl

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