Review: Exile Music by Jennifer Steil

Title: Exile Music

Author: Jennifer Steil

Page Length: 415

Publication Date: May 5, 2020

Publisher: Viking

Synopsis: Based on an unexplored slice of World War II history, Exile Music is the captivating story of a young Jewish girl whose family flees refined and urbane Vienna for safe harbor in the mountains of Bolivia

As a young girl growing up in Vienna in the 1930s, Orly has an idyllic childhood filled with music. Her father plays the viola in the Philharmonic, her mother is a well-regarded opera singer, her beloved and charismatic older brother holds the neighborhood in his thrall, and most of her eccentric and wonderful extended family live nearby. Only vaguely aware of Hitler’s rise or how her Jewish heritage will define her family’s identity, Orly spends her days immersed in play with her best friend and upstairs neighbor, Anneliese. Together they dream up vivid and elaborate worlds, where they can escape the growing tensions around them.

But in 1938, Orly’s peaceful life is shattered when the Germans arrive. Her older brother flees Vienna first, and soon Orly, her father, and her mother procure refugee visas for La Paz, a city high up in the Bolivian Andes. Even as the number of Jewish refugees in the small community grows, her family is haunted by the music that can no longer be their livelihood, and by the family and friends they left behind. While Orly and her father find their footing in the mountains, Orly’s mother grows even more distant, harboring a secret that could put their family at risk again. Years pass, the war ends, and Orly must decide: Is the love and adventure she has found in La Paz what defines home, or is the pull of her past in Europe–and the piece of her heart she left with Anneliese–too strong to ignore?

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My Review:

A wonderfully-written coming-of-age novel, Exile Music tells the story of Orly, a young girl who enjoys a musical life in Vienna with her family. This includes her brother, her mother, who is an opera singer, her father, who plays the viola in the Philharmonic, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a best friend named Annaliese. Orly’s life is filled with happiness and safety.

However, as Nazis infiltrate and obliterate her safe and happy world, Orly and her parents decide to flee to Bolivia. There, they must adjust to a new country, a new culture, and a new language without their son and the rest of their family. Altitude sickness, unemployment, secrets, and other issues plague the family. Through the hardships and adjustments, the family threatens to unravel, and Orly longs for Annaliese.

As the years’ pass, terrible news arrives about the devastating effects of war and what has happened to family and friends. Though Orly grows and makes new friends, she never forgets Anneliese and hopes she will see her again. Years later, after the war ends, Orly must decide where her future lies.

This is an interesting and intricately woven story with well-developed characters and a fascinating plot. The detailed historical context and vivid descriptions of the setting provide ample context and create such vivid images. I found it interesting that the family ended up in Bolivia. I haven’t read many World War II stories that take place in non-European countries, and this aspect of the book is fascinating and compelling.

Orly is a wonderful protagonist who deals with so much in her young years. Not only is she dealing with the harsh realities of the war, immigrating to a new and unfamiliar country, and adjusting to life, she is also learning more about her sexuality. I could feel her emotions as she dealt with all of the sadness, fear, joy, and confusion in her life. Orly is a strong protagonist with a poignant and compelling story.

I also love the way in which music is ingrained into Orly’s life and the lives of the other characters in the story. It brings them solace, peace, and hope in times when they most need it. Strong messages about the power of music are skillfully threaded throughout the story.

Exile Music is a beautifully written historical fiction novel that touches on subjects like racism, sexuality, family, oppression, love, and displacement. Unfortunately, most of the messages introduced in the book are still relevant today. I’m grateful to have won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway and look forward to reading more by Jennifer Steil.



Readers who like historical fiction that focuses on World War II will enjoy this book.

8 thoughts on “Review: Exile Music by Jennifer Steil

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