Playing with Fire: A Novel by Tess Gerritsen | Jewish Book Council
Taking place between the United States and Italy, Tess Gerritsen’s fast-paced novel delves into the history of a piece of music that has a mysterious power over anyone who hears or plays it.
An American vacationer named Julia is drawn to purchase a book of old sheet music in a rundown antiques shop in Rome. A sheet of manuscript paper falls out of the book” marked up everywhere in pencil, its handwritten title is Incendio, composed by L. Todesco. From the moment Julia reads the music, her hair stands on end.
As she becomes obsessed with perfecting her recital of the discovered music, Julia becomes somewhat distanced from her family. When strange events seem to occur while she practices her violin, Julia is certain that there is much that she needs to research about this piece and its composer. Julia’s husband becomes worried about her obsession and their marriage begins to suffer, as does her relationship with their daughter, Lily.
This story travels back and forth between Julia’s story, and that of Lorenzo Todesco’s family life in pre WWII Italy. Lorenzo lives comfortably with his parents and two siblings in Venice. Years ago, a professor named Alberto Mazza traveled far to bring in a two-century-old family heirloom, a cracked violin, to be repaired by Lorenzo’s father, Bruno, known as the best luthier in Venice. Bruno married Alberto’s daughter, and when their talented violinist son Lorenzo comes of age, he is gifted with his grandfather’s special violin, La Dionara. Knowledge of Lorenzo’s talent spreads through Venice as he prepares to compete in an upcoming music competition, and before long his grandfather is visited by old colleague and friend, Professor Augosto Balboni, who insists on introducing his daughter Laura to practice and compete together as a duet with Lorenzo. Reluctant at first, the two young musicians discover that they are perfect complements — not only in music.
As the competition approaches, changes are happening too quickly in Fascist Italy. Perhaps because the Jewish community had been so integrated into Venetian society, most Jews remained in denial, despite the imminent warnings. Lorenzo’s brother is particularly eager to get the family out of Venice, but their father continually resists.
What ensues at the music competition and thereafter will be no surprise to readers familiar with modern European history. The horribly tragic results of the Nazis takeover of Italy is only somewhat softened by the resistance of the heroic Italian citizens, who put their own families in danger in order to attempt to rescue their fellow Jewish neighbors.
The two stories intertwine as Julia throws her efforts into finding out why the music she has discovered is so haunting. Her findings are quite graphic and upsetting, as they must be in order to reflect the historical context faithfully. Although the plot line concerning Julia and her daughter is dramatic and spooky, it is merely a vehicle to get Julia to unearth the main story, that of the Incendio
Playing with Fire is recommended to anyone who is open to learning about the fate of the Jews in Italy during World War II, to students of music, and to those who enjoy reading historical fiction, mystery, or romance. The book includes historical notes about the Campo Ghetto Nuovo and its memorial plaques in honor of the community’s Jews who were deported and murdered. It also discusses how Italy differed from the rest of Europe in its significantly lower percentage of Nazi death statistics, despite the change of the transit camp Risiera di San Sabba on the outskirts of Trieste into an extermination camp, the only one on Italian soil.
Readers of Playing with Fire will surely flip through the chapters at the same frantic pace as its music was meant to be played, experiencing the same chilling effect as the Incendio.