That’s two Tess Gerritsen books in one year! Can I get an amen? Well, of course. Yet, the latest, Playing with Fire, doesn’t involve Gerritsen’s series regulars Rizzoli and Isle. Nope. Playing with a Fire is a stand-alone thriller. To me it waggles between sometimes lukewarm in areas but immensely fascinating in others. Either way it's a quick, thrilling dash between the past and present. Done in classic, multi-layered Gerritsen style.
First, a summary of the book.
Playing with Fire is about a violinist named Julia Ansdell. Julia had the misfortune of acquiring an old, handwritten piece of sheet music called The Incendio Waltz. While traveling with her orchestra, she came across the piece in an antiques shop in Rome. So during a routine practice session back home in America, she plays it (or attempts to considering its difficulty) before her three-year-old daughter. During this practice session Julia blacks out, and wakes to find her daughter next to their just mutilated pet cat. Horrified, Julia suspects her daughter is responsible for the killing–for whatever reason. That suspicion leads the two into hospitals and therapy sessions for biological/psychological testing.
Desperate, the tests seem necessary for both Julia and her daughter. Yet when another practice sessions leads to another blackout, this time Julia awakens to a stab womb. And standing over her is her child. She concludes the common denominator of these violent-resulting blackouts are, somehow, the sheet music. Julia’s argument is the sheet music has a way of triggering something savage in her daughter’s subconscious. This, in turn, leads her to trace the composer's Venice origins. However, she comes across a problem on her journey. It appears an organization of political heads don't want the secrets of the piece revealed. And they’ll pull murderous stops in keeping Julia from unveiling its atrocious origins.
Time & Back
Playing with Fire alternates through two narratives. And what I summarized pretty much describes one. Considering Gerritsen writes crime fiction and thrillers, those elements are present. With a light conspiratorial edge. The music piece as a trigger to the character’s subconscious allows Gerritsen psychological avenues to explore. And as a doctor, Gerritsen has always added medical science to her thrillers. Her writing always contain the medical hook, which is one reason I love her work. There's always something new and interesting to learn and mull over after the reading experience. So those who love or are familiar with Gerritsen won't be disappointed, even as she writes outside of the Rizzoli and Isle series.
Nonetheless, while I found Julia’s story capable, but dry toward the end, I also found her a touch flavorless as the lead. She kind of reminded me of those women you see in Lifetime movies. Capable, but flailing. And in a hush-hush sense, I saw her as the window into Gerritsen's commentary and study of the book's true (to me) nature. Julia carried the story well-blocked and seamless in her role. Still, the real (and I stress it) treat to Playing with Fire is the secondary third-person narrative. It’s the story of a young musician named Lorenzo, told as far back as the 40s.
Gerrtisen played with stand-alone historical fiction before in The Bond Garden. This time she takes readers to Vienna before the eruption of World War II. Here we meet Lorenzo and his family, and Gerritsen sweeps us into the lives of Jewish men and women residing in Italy pre-Holocaust. To me, her overall direction with the book points to this realm of Jewish history. The Jewish community in Italy during the Holocaust weren't spoken on as much as those in places such as Amsterdam and Estonia.
It’s this second narrative where I found a combination of many eye-opening–yet haunting and gritty–elements. And, to be frank, the grease behind the book.
I found myself absorbed in Lorenzo’s tale. I even got a little irritated having to jump back into Julia’s story (though I won’t discredit her necessity). Outside delving into Lorenzo’s family and love life, it’s a story chronicling historical lanes taken by Jewish people in Vienna. From the subtle exclusion of their voices in local publications. To the exclusion of Jewish professors and students in academia programs. Gerritsen takes us during the uprooting and burning of their homes. She takes us to Jewish citizens finding themselves shut into a church with neighbors throwing food through windows to feed them. The further the story goes, the further Gerritsen provides us detailed glimpses into the lies people faced finding themselves on the trains to concentrate camps. Through the grace of his musical abilities, you can only wonder Lorenzo’s eventual fate. And I’ll stop here to simmer down. Romantic, aggressive and touching; his narrative stopped time. I would imagine anyone else who has read the book found themselves absorbed in his story. Gerritsen juggles a lot in Playing with Fire, but I can't help but feel her historical fiction soared.
Anyway, wonderful book if only for Lorenzo’s narrative. Gerritsen really will take you there.