Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen

Description: In a shadowy antiques shop in Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell happens upon a curious piece of music—the Incendio waltz—and is immediately entranced by its unusual composition. Full of passion, torment, and chilling beauty, and seemingly unknown to the world, the waltz, its mournful minor key, its feverish arpeggios, appear to dance with a strange life of their own. Julia is determined to master the complex work and make its melody heard.
Back home in Boston, from the moment Julia’s bow moves across the strings, drawing the waltz’s fiery notes into the air, something strange is stirred—and Julia’s world comes under threat. The music has a terrifying and inexplicable effect on her young daughter, who seems violently transformed. Convinced that the hypnotic strains of Incendio are weaving a malevolent spell, Julia sets out to discover the man and the meaning behind the score.

Her quest beckons Julia to the ancient city of Venice, where she uncovers a dark, decades-old secret involving a dangerously powerful family that will stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.


Playing With Fire may be Tess Gerritsen’s best novel yet. I enjoy her Rizzoli and Isles books, but it’s her stand alones that are my favorites and Playing With Fire is at the top of that list.  It’s also one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.


The story starts when Julia Ansdell, a musician travelling in Italy, comes across a strange piece of music in an out of the way shop. It is a difficult composition, and when she plays it at home, it seems to create a violent transformation in her young daughter. The event launches Julia into a search for the music’s origin as well as an explanation for her daughter’s behavior. The two may be linked, although Julia faces increasing skepticism from her husband and friends.


The story alternates with a glimpse into the life of the composer, a young Italian Jewish boy (Lorenzo) at the beginning of World War II. Lorenzo is a talented musician who meets and falls in love with a non-Jewish girl, Laura, as they prepare to play in an important music competition. Lorenzo is caught between his father, who insists that sanity will return and they shouldn’t worry and his brother, who recognizes the danger posed to the Jewish community by Hitler and Italian fascists.


The story goes back and forth between Julia’s search into the history of the music and the clues it may hold to her daughter’s behavior and Lorenzo as his family’s life changes irrevocably even as he loses himself in his music and the hope he has found in Laura. The danger each faces grows constantly.


I was not overly familiar with the details of the Italian Jews in World War II and found Gerritsen’s depiction of that time haunting and tragic. The perspective on those horrific times through the eyes of one individual is incredibly moving. Gerritsen does an outstanding job of investing the reader in both storylines as they come together in a satisfying way, even if neither storyline ends as might be expected.


At under 250 pages, this is a quick, intense read. There is not a word wasted. Gerritsen is at the top of her form and Playing With Fire is a must read.


I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.


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