5 stars out of 5
Riveting. Haunting. Poignant. Disturbing. Enlightening. So did I enjoy this book? The answer is absolutely, but not in the usual sense; the official description reveals very little about the real story between the pages (to put it another way, Rizzoli and Isles it ain't). As other readers have noted in their reviews, the content came as a surprise - but for me, it was a difficult book to put down. Thankfully, it's short enough that I was able to finish it in one day.
The thriller element is here, of course, but it plays second fiddle (pun intended) to a story of how the Holocaust played out in Italy beginning in the late 1930s. It begins when violinist Julia Ansdell, mother of 3-year-old Julia, is in Rome for a performance and visits an antique shop to look for old music to add to her collection. She finds what she's looking for - a book - and falling from between the pages is a real treasure: a handwritten waltz titled Incendio (fire). As a musician, she recognizes immediately the potential beauty and emotional impact of the piece, so she buys it and takes it home to Boston.
There, the fire soon threatens to consume her entire world; when she first tries to play the composition, it appears to transform her young daughter - but in a terrible way. Her husband and sister, though, suspect it's Julia who's changed; her late mother had a history of mental illness, after all. But even though she worries that they're right, Julia remains convinced that there's something evil in the music - so she sneaks away from her husband Rob and daughter and sets out to learn its history.
Her destination is Venice, where she meets up with her friend, a cellist in whom Julia has confided her concerns about her daughter's sudden tendency toward violence. There, they learn more about the composer and the dark side of the waltz's origin - and in the process put their lives in danger from those who want secrets from the past to stay hidden.
There's action and suspense as Julia tries to avoid being killed, but much of the book tells the tale of the composer - and that centers on rather graphic accounts of what happened in Italy during the Holocaust. It's a beautiful yet ugly story that's rooted in fact; in 1938, the Italian Fascist regime under Benito Mussolini enacted a number of laws restricting the Jewish population, and from that point on, life as a Jew in Italy turned horrific to say the least. Bringing that history to life and honoring those who were "heroes" is, the author says, a major reason for writing the book.
When I finished, I had a few questions about Julia's part of the story that I wish had been answered, but in the end they really don't matter much. Suffice it to say this book grabbed me at the beginning, and I expect it will be a while before it totally releases its grip on my mind.
Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine Books, October 2015); 273 pp.