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Playing with Fire


Playing with Fire

Tess Gerritsen’s gripping stand-alone thriller begins in Rome, where Julia Ansdell spends her last few hours of free time before her flight home to Boston. With souvenirs for her husband, Rob, and three-year old daughter Lily packed, she now visits antique shops and rare booksellers on a narrow cobblestoned street, seeking one for herself. The gnomish shop proprietor eyes the violin case strapped to her back, knowing she’ll pay a high price for the tattered book of Gypsy sheet music she put before him.

The two barter back and forth about the cento (100 euros) he asks for the book, but ultimately she gives in and pays. An accomplished violinist, with her quartet’s performance at a Rome festival, she now seeks this memory of her trip. She can hear sounds of the plaintive Gypsy melodies in her head while she glances at the written notes. A tattered single sheet has fallen from the book: a manuscript piece penciled by hand. Titled Incendio by L. Todesco, the waltz begins in a minor key but escalates into rapid arpeggios and highlighted marks, finishing with wild notes that leave her exhausted. 

"...[a] gripping stand-alone thriller... The title, 'Playing with Fire,' is perfect for this novel --- a tribute to passion, emotion, love, history and triumph over defeat."

Aside from her love affair with music, Julia’s time with her little girl is precious. She knows that Lily is the perfect child, her mother’s pride and joy. Back home, she settles into routine tasks. While Lily rests, she sets up to practice the Italian music. The single waltz beckons her; the melody feels easy but quickly slides into the difficult ranges. She is so lost in the music that she barely hears Lily’s scream. Rushing to the child, Julia shrieks to find the family cat dead and her daughter holding the garden knife that has inflicted numerous fatal wounds.

Julia reaches back into her own childhood for knowledge of her mother’s illness. She had dropped Julia’s baby brother to his death from a window --- instability that has institutionalized the woman. Does Lily carry a hidden grisly gene? A visit to the pediatrician and Rob’s analytical mind calm her down. Lily shows no signs of meanness or an unstable personality. But a second accident, this time with Julia receiving a slash down her leg while playing the same waltz, sets her in search of the music’s history. What devilish aura drifted from these notes to her daughter? Sadly, Julia is now frightened of her own child.

Gerritsen sets up the plot with Julia’s story in the first three chapters, but opens the heart of the narrative with a shift to Venice, Italy, before the German invasion there in World War II. A large Jewish population lives in Venice, comfortable in neighborhoods where they work and mingle with the local Italian people. Rumors abound of an alliance with Germany, but families are certain that none of the resettlement options that have been talked about will happen there.

Bruno Todesco’s reputation as a magician with violin woods, their creation and repair, is well known in the city. His son Lorenzo, at 19, is an artist with the violin, acclaimed when he plays along with grandfather Arturo, who gifts him with a family heirloom: the violin to be known as La Dianora - The Sorceress. Italian professor Balboni approaches Lorenzo about playing a violin/cello duet with his daughter, Laura. He sees that the young man can help her adjust to life aside from mourning her dead mother. The two begin to practice, with emotional bonds forming between them, while outside the house war comes to Italy. Many Jewish families flee from the country, but Bruno will not believe they can be uprooted. 

Tess Gerritsen’s previous novels have ranged from cops and robbers to forensic pathology and gnarly crime scene sets. Carrying this book to the realm of a “must-read” is the deeply passionate story line she crafts concerning the emotions music can draw out to link soulmates born decades apart. The two plotlines come together as one when Julia learns how the sheet music she has bought has played with fire in her own life. The title, "Playing with Fire," is perfect for this novel --- a tribute to passion, emotion, love, history and triumph over defeat.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on November 20, 2015

Playing with Fire
by Tess Gerritsen

  • Publication Date: August 2, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 1101884363
  • ISBN-13: 9781101884362