Play­ing with Fire: A Novel

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

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.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

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