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Playing with Fire: A Novel Kindle Edition
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“One of the best and most original thrillers of the year.”—Providence Journal
“[A] novel brimming with emotion, literary description, and psychological suspense.”—The Huffington Post
“Will make readers drop everything to immerse themselves in its propulsive dual narrative.”—Los Angeles Times
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From the doorway I can already smell the scent of old books, a perfume of crumbling pages and time-worn leather. The other antiques stores that I’ve passed on this cobblestoned alley have their air conditioners running and their doors closed against the heat, but this shop’s door is propped open, as if inviting me to enter. It’s my last afternoon in Rome, my last chance to pick up a souvenir of my visit. Already I’ve bought a silk tie for Rob and an extravagantly ruffled dress for our three-year-old daughter, Lily, but I haven’t found anything for myself. In the window of this antiques shop, I see exactly what I want.
I step into gloom so thick that my eyes need a moment to adjust. Outside it’s sweltering, but in here it’s strangely cool, as though I’ve entered a cave where neither heat nor light can penetrate. Slowly, shapes take form in the shadows and I see book-crammed shelves, old steamer trunks, and in the corner a medieval suit of tarnished armor. On the walls hang oil paintings, all of them garish and ugly and adorned with yellowed price tags. I don’t notice that the proprietor is standing in the alcove, so I’m startled when he suddenly calls out to me in Italian. I turn and see a little gnome of a man with eyebrows like snowy caterpillars.
“I’m sorry,” I answer. “Non parlo Italiano.”
“Violino?” He points to the violin case that I have strapped to my back. It’s far too valuable an instrument to leave in my hotel room and I always keep it with me while traveling. “Musicista?” he asks and plays air fiddle, his right arm sawing back and forth with a phantom bow.
“Yes, I’m a musician. From America. I performed this morning, at the festival.” Though he nods politely, I don’t think he actually understands me. I point to the item I spotted in his display window. “Could I see that book? Libro. Musica.”
He reaches into the window display for the book of music and hands it to me. I know it’s old, by the way the edges of the paper crumble at my touch. The edition is Italian, and on its cover is the word Gypsy and an image of a shaggy-haired man playing the violin. I open it to the first tune, which is written in a minor key. The piece is unfamiliar, a plaintive melody that my fingers are already itching to play. Yes, this is what I’m always on the hunt for, old music that’s been forgotten and deserves to be rediscovered.
As I flip through the other tunes, a loose page falls out and flutters to the floor. Not part of the book, it is a sheet of manuscript paper, its staves thick with musical notes jotted in pencil. The composition’s title is handwritten in elegantly swooping letters.
Incendio, composed by L. Todesco.
As I read the music, I can hear the notes in my head and within a few measures, I know this waltz is beautiful. It starts as a simple melody in E minor. But at measure sixteen, the music grows more complex. By measure sixty, notes start to pile on notes and there are jarring accidentals. I flip to the other side and every measure is dense with pencil marks. A lightning-quick string of arpeggios launches the melody into a frantic maelstrom of notes that make the hairs suddenly rise on my arms.
I must have this music.
“Quanto costa?” I ask. “For this page and for the book as well?”
The proprietor watches me with a canny gleam in his eyes. “Cento.” He pulls out a pen and writes the number on his palm.
“A hundred euros? You can’t be serious.”
“E’ vecchio. Old.”
“It’s not that old.”
His shrug tells me I can take it or leave it. He’s already seen the hunger in my eyes; he knows he can charge me an outrageous price for this crumbling volume of Gypsy tunes and I’ll pay it. Music is my only extravagance. I have no interest in jewelry or designer clothes and shoes; the only accessory I truly value is the hundred-year-old violin now strapped to my back.
He hands me a receipt for my purchase and I walk out of the shop, into afternoon heat that’s as cloying as syrup. How odd that I felt so cold inside. I look back at the building, but I don’t see any air conditioner, just closed windows and twin gargoyles perched above the pediment. A shard of sunlight bounces back at me, reflected from the brass Medusa-head knocker. The door is now closed, but through the dusty window I glimpse the proprietor looking at me, just before he drops the shade and vanishes from sight.
My husband, Rob, is thrilled with the new tie I bought him in Rome. He stands at our bedroom mirror, expertly looping lustrous silk around his neck. “This is just the thing I need to jazz up a boring meeting,” he says. “Maybe these colors will keep them all awake when I start going over the numbers.” At thirty-eight, he’s as lean and fit as the day we married, although the last ten years have added streaks of silver to his temples. In his starched white shirt and gold cuff links, my Boston-bred husband looks exactly like the meticulous accountant he is. He’s all about numbers: profits and losses, assets and debts. He sees the world in mathematical terms, and even the way he moves has a precise geometry to it, his tie swinging an arc, crisscrossing into a perfect knot. How different we are! The only numbers I care about are symphony and opus numbers and the time signatures on my music. Rob tells everyone that’s why he was attracted to me, because unlike him, I’m an artist and air creature who dances in the sunshine. I used to worry that our differences would tear us apart, that Rob, who keeps his feet so firmly planted on the ground, would grow weary of keeping his air-creature wife from floating away into the clouds. But ten years later, here we are, still in love.
He smiles at me in the mirror as he tightens the knot at his throat. “You were awake awfully early this morning, Julia.”
“I’m still on Rome time. It’s already twelve noon there. That’s the upside of jet lag. Just think of all the things I’ll get done today.”
“I predict you’ll be ready to collapse by lunchtime. You want me to drive Lily to day care?”
“No, I want to keep her home today. I feel guilty about being away from her all week.”
“You shouldn’t. Your aunt Val swooped in and took care of everything, the way she always does.”
“Well, I missed her like crazy and I want to spend every minute with her today.”
He turns to show me his new tie, perfectly centered on his collar. “What’s on the agenda?”
“It’s so hot, I think we’ll go to the pool. Maybe drop into the library and choose some new books.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He bends to kiss me, and his clean-shaven face smells tart with citrus. “I hate it when you’re gone, babe,” he murmurs. “Maybe next time, I’ll take the week off and we’ll go together. Wouldn’t that be a lot more—”
“Mommy, look! Look how pretty!” Our three-year-old daughter, Lily, dances into the bedroom and swirls around in the new dress I brought her from Rome, the dress that she tried on last night and now refuses to take off. Without warning she launches herself like a missile into my arms and we both tumble onto the bed, laughing. There is nothing so sweet as the smell of my own child, and I want to inhale every molecule of her, absorb her back into my own body so we can become one again. As I hug the giggling tangle of blond hair and lavender ruffles, Rob drops onto the bed, too, and wraps us both in his arms.
“Here are the two most beautiful girls in the world,” he declares. “And they’re mine, all mine!”
“Daddy, stay home,” Lily orders.
“Wish I could, sweetie.” Rob plants a noisy kiss on Lily’s head and reluctantly gets back to his feet. “Daddy has to go to work, but aren’t you a lucky girl? You get to spend all day with Mommy.”
“Let’s go put on our bathing suits,” I tell Lily. “We’re going to have a wonderful time, just you and me.”
And we do have a wonderful time. We splash in the community pool. We eat cheese pizza and ice cream for lunch and go to the library, where Lily chooses two new picture books featuring donkeys, her favorite animal. But when we get home at three that afternoon, I’m almost comatose from exhaustion. As Rob predicted, jet lag has caught up with me and there’s nothing I want to do more than to crawl into bed and go to sleep.
Unfortunately, Lily’s wide awake and she’s dragged the box of her old baby clothes out onto the patio, where our cat, Juniper, is snoozing. Lily loves dressing up Juniper and already she’s tied a bonnet around his head and is working one of his front paws into a sleeve. Our sweet old cat endures it as he always does, indifferent to the indignities of lace and ruffles.
While Juniper gets his fashion makeover, I bring my violin and music stand onto the patio and open the book of Gypsy tunes. Once again, the loose sheet of music slips out, landing faceup at my feet. Incendio.
I haven’t looked at this music since the day I bought it in Rome. Now, as I clip the page to the stand, I think of that gloomy antiques shop, and the proprietor, lurking like some cave creature in the alcove. Goose bumps suddenly stipple my skin, as if the chill of the shop still clings to this music.
I pick up my violin and begin to play.
On this humid afternoon, my instrument sounds deeper, richer than ever, the tone mellow and warm. The first thirty-two bars of the waltz are as beautiful as I’d imagined, a lament in a mournful baritone. But at measure forty, the notes accelerate. The melody twists and turns, jarred by accidentals, and soars into seventh position on the E string. Sweat breaks out on my face as I struggle to stay in tune and maintain the tempo. I feel as if my bow takes off on its own, that it’s moving as though bewitched and I’m just struggling to hang on to it. Oh, what glorious music this is! What a performance piece, if I can master it. The notes skitter up the scale. Suddenly I lose all control and everything goes off-pitch, my left hand cramping as the music builds to a frenzy.
A small hand grasps my leg. Something warm and wet smears my skin.
I stop playing and look down. Lily stares up at me, her eyes as clear as turquoise water. Even as I jump up in dismay and wrench the garden tool from her bloody hand, not a ripple disturbs her calm blue eyes. Her bare feet have tracked footprints across the patio flagstones. With growing horror, I follow those footprints back to the source of the blood.
That’s when I start screaming.
Rob helps me wash the cat’s blood from the patio. Poor old Juniper is now wrapped in a black trash bag, awaiting burial. We’ve dug the hole for his grave in the far corner of the yard, behind the lilac bush, so I will not have to look at it whenever I come into the garden. Juniper was eighteen years old and almost blind, a gentle companion who deserves a better eternity than a trash bag, but I was too shaken to come up with any alternative.
“I’m sure it was just an accident,” Rob insists. He tosses the dirty sponge into the bucket and the water magically turns a nauseating shade of pink. “Lily must have tripped and fallen on him. Thank God she didn’t land with the sharp end up, or she could have put out her eye. Or worse.”
“I wrapped him in the trash bag. I saw his body, and it wasn’t just a single stab wound. How do you trip and fall three times?”
He ignores my question. Instead, he picks up the murder weapon, a dandelion fork tipped with prongs, and asks, “How did she get her hands on this thing, anyway?”
“I was out here weeding last week. I must have forgotten to put it back in the tool shed.” There’s still blood on the prongs and I turn away. “Rob, doesn’t it bother you how she’s reacting to all this? She stabbed Juniper and a few minutes later, she asked for juice. That’s what freaks me out, how perfectly calm she is about what she did.”
“She’s too young to understand. A three-year-old doesn’t know what death means.”
“She must have known she was hurting him. He must have made some kind of sound.”
“Didn’t you hear it?”
“I was playing the violin, right here. Lily and Juniper were at that end of the patio. They seemed perfectly fine together. Until . . .”
“Maybe he scratched her. Maybe he did something to provoke her.”
“Go upstairs and take a look at her arms. She doesn’t have a single mark on her. And you know how sweet that cat was. You could yank on his fur, step on his tail, and he’d never scratch you. I’ve had him since he was just a kitten, and for him to die this way . . .” My voice cracks and I sink into a patio chair as it all washes over me, a tidal wave of grief and exhaustion. And guilt, because I couldn’t protect my old friend, even as he bled to death only twenty feet away. Rob awkwardly pats my shoulder, not knowing how to comfort me. My logical, mathematical husband is helpless when it comes to dealing with a woman’s tears.
“Hey. Hey, babe,” he murmurs. “What if we got a new kitten?”
“You can’t be serious. After what she did to Juniper?”
“Okay, that was a stupid idea. But please, Julia, don’t blame her. I bet she misses him just as much as we do. She just doesn’t understand what happened.”
“Mommy?” Lily cries out from her bedroom, where I’ve put her down for her nap. “Mommy!”
Though I’m the one she’s calling for, it’s Rob who lifts her out of her bed, Rob who cradles her in his lap as he sits in the same rocking chair where I once nursed her. As I watch them, I think of the nights when she was still an infant and I rocked her in that chair, hour after hour, her velvety cheek snuggled against my breast. Magical, sleep-deprived nights when it was just Lily and me. I’d stare into her eyes and whisper: “Please remember this. Always remember how much Mommy loves you.” --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
- File size : 3831 KB
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 242 pages
- Publication date : October 27, 2015
- Language: : English
- Publisher : Ballantine Books (October 27, 2015)
- ASIN : B00UEL0I4I
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #52,898 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Having recently discovered Tess Gerritsen and her fabulous Rizzoli and Isles series -- and having binge-read every one -- I was seduced into reading this stand-alone novel. And it was quite engrossing most of the way through. Up until the disappointing ending, I found the book difficult to put down.
Julia, the heroine, narrates the story in the first person, and she turns out to be an unreliable narrator – the kind I don’t particularly appreciate.
The plot involves a mysterious piece of music that violinist Julia finds in a little shop in Rome. When she plays the music at home in Brookline, Massachusetts, however, it seems to affect her three-year-old daughter, Lily, in a dark and evil way. First, the child stabs the family cat to death and then later stabs Julia in the leg, causing Julia to also fall and hit her head. A third incident, in which Julia slips on one of Lily’s toys left on the stairs, does not involve the music. And that is just one of several problems I have with the book: How does Julia explain the last incident being Lily’s doing when she is convinced that the music is causing Lily’s disturbing behavior?
The novel progresses with Julia believing bit by bit that she cannot trust anyone, including her husband or her friend and musical associate, Gerda, the latter of which she travels to Italy to find the composer of the unpublished music and -- it is hoped -- discover the reason behind Lily’s behavior. The book goes into a great deal of detail regarding the young and brilliant musician and composer named Lorenzo who lived in Italy during the Holocaust and whose story is brutal and heartbreaking, as accounts of that period in history are.
But while the storytelling is suspenseful and compelling, the ending is abrupt and simply not believable, especially for a thriller. Then there are those other problems:
• I understand that people with benign brain tumors can show aggression, but do they normally go out their way to murder their cats and stab themselves in the leg?
• People who have brain tumors can have headaches and lose sleep and their appetites, but so can a woman who is stressed out and worried that her little daughter might be a budding serial killer! The only significant symptom I recall is the time Julia apparently forgets to pick Lily up from preschool, but it is not clear what happened exactly, so that episode seemed more like a non sequitur or red herring than a solid clue.
• If Julia’s husband and aunt were so worried that Julia was hallucinating about Lily’s behavior, why didn’t Julia’s husband merely suggest a neurological exam to rule out a concussion – especially because she hit her head and then took another tumble down the stairs? That would have revealed the tumor. Why jump to the conclusion that Julia is psychotic before undergoing a physical exam?
• Why was there no reference to Julia’s mother at the end of the book upon discovering Julia’s brain tumor? Julia’s aunt blithely tells Julia that her mother threw her baby brother off a balcony out of selfishness although she was in a psychiatric hospital. But now that Julia has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, why doesn’t anyone now think that perhaps Julia’s mother had one as well?
In my view, the whole thing with Lily’s behavior is an unnecessary plot device to get to the real story about Lorenzo and how he came to write his shocking and absorbing musical piece. I wish Ms. Gerritsen would have left out Julia’s family baggage and instead focused on a single Julia and her friend, Gerda, and their efforts to track down the musical piece against the backdrop of Venice. More intrigue with the Capobianco/Collotti contingency would have made this a truly taut thriller. And throwing in a dashing descendant of Lorenzo’s or cello player could have provided romance for Julia to offset the tragedy of Lorenzo and Laura.
This was a promising novel that had one plot line too many that distracted from what could have been a true thriller with a logical and satisfying ending.
If I did not know better I would not have thought that this novel was written by Tess Gerritsen. Her Rizzoli and Isles books are of a much higher quality.
The incredible thing about this novel is that Tess Gerritsen herself dreamed of this piece of music and wrote it herself!!! It was played by an internationally known violinist-this music is phenomenal!!
Tess Gerritsen is not only a best-selling author, but she is an MD AND a musician, playing both piano and violin. The Incendio Waltz, the music involved in her book, was written by her and is outstanding!!! I highly recommend this book and the music!
that was one of the reasons I loved it. Have been reading and loving R-I since the very first one but it still is great to see that
Ms.Gerritsen's magic extends not only to Maura and Jane, but to any character she chooses to write.
One reviewer stated that this book is a fail because (paraphrasing) the author has bitten off more than she can chew, as the history of
the Holocaust is so much more than what happens in this book. That is like saying that "Schlinder's List" is a fail because it only talks about
the people saved by Oskar Schindler. In "Playing With Fire", Ms. Gerritsen tells us ONE story from the Holocaust and she never tries to convince us that she wants to do more than that. I do not understand how a reasonable person could call this book a failure.
Added to the characters from WW II, we meet Julia, a second-chair violinist visiting a Venice antique store, where she discovers and purchases "Incendio", an original piece of music from an unknown composer. Julia thinks that the sheet music is overpriced, but buys it anyway. I loved her rationale for splurging on it : "Music is my only.extravagance." It seems that she may soon regret buying it, when her three-year-old
daughter seems to have a violent reaction to
the actual performance of the piece.
As Julia tries to find the reason for her daughter's actions upon hearing the music, she theorizes wild reasons for it and becomes mildly,
then severely, estranged from her little girl Lily. The more reason tries to prevail---in the form of Julia's husband's Rob---the more obsessed Julia becomes. Interwoven with this confusing and confounding situation, the history that birthed "Incendio" is revealed to us via endearing
characters from wartime Venice. Julia's psyche, as well as her marriage and friendships, are stretched almost to the breaking point.
I do not want to spoil this amazing story by telling anymore of it. I was so immersed in the book's characters that I was shocked when
I looked at the bottom of my Kindle page and saw that I was 80% through the book. That brings me to the only fault I found with "Playing
With Fire" : I wish that it had been longer. I wish that Ms. Gerritsen could have made the book last longer, somehow slowed down
its resolution with a few more chapters, but that would have changed the fabric of the book, which is the last thing I'd want to do. It is close to
perfect just the way it is.
Top reviews from other countries
NOTE: Author Tess Gerritsen, also a trained musician, composed an accompanying piece for this novel. "Incendio", performed by Yi-Jia Susanne Hou (who composed additional violin cadenza) on violin and Peter Longworth on piano, is available on Spotify. The piece is part of the story's plot, though in the book its composition is credited to one of the characters.
I've fallen terribly behind on the Rizzoli & Isles series of novels, but thought I'd get back into Tess Gerritsen's work with this standalone. Had the author been someone else, I likely wouldn't have tried it. A contemporary jet-setting thriller, with historical elements, is far from my cup of tea.
Having read the author's blog and social media beforehand, I knew the spoiler going into the novel. Whether this affected my enjoyment of it, I'm not sure. I understand what the author tried to do with this story, but its execution consists of two different ideas that just aren't stitched together well enough.
Surprisingly, the historical content interested me far more than the contemporary. I didn't know much about the Holocaust in Italy, and while it's difficult to read about, it's also important to learn. At the camps, leaders used some of the captives to serve as musicians, which may have saved their lives, but at what cost?
The contemporary component has two plots: Julia's daughter killed the family cat and injured Julia; meanwhile, Julia's become obsessed with finding out more about the creation of "Incendio". It's the latter which brings down the book when it suddenly becomes a "you have the manuscript, therefore you must die" story of assassins hunting her down. Yeah, that kind of comes out of nowhere and is rather brief, with telling rather than showing.
And so the novel's quality suffers because the connection between contemporary and historical isn't strong enough to live up to the otherwise great ideas. Not a bad read, but not one I'd be quick to recommend.
If I suggested to my mentors or tutors that I was writing a novel of which one third was historical flashback, eyebrows would raise. Tess Gerritsen’s ‘Playing with Fire’ illustrates exactly why.
The reader’s first encounter is in 2015 Rome. Curious and violin-carrying Julia, ‘a musician from America’ as she describes herself to the elderly male emporium proprietor to whom she's paying an exorbitant sum for a pencil-scrawled sheet of music, can straightway see that the piece is no less than genius. Back home in America every time Julia attempts to play Incendio as its called, her four year-old child Lily goes homicidal. Julia believes the music is haunted but her husband, faceless stereotypical and skeptic Rob just thinks she’s crazy, so does sister Val. Oh, and there’s mental illness lurking on her side of the family. In spite of the threat of being incarcerated in a mental institution at any moment Julia decides to solve the mystery. It’s an irresistible beginning.
Fifty pages in, the reader is whisked back to Fascist dominated Venice of the late 1930's where gifted Jewish violinist Lorenzo is practicing with blonde and driven cellist Laura in preparation for a prestigious competition, and the reader embarks on a journey guessing the connection between the two events. Haunting and captivating.
Oh yes, the novel pulls the reader in, seems to be pressing the right buttons, but as a reading experience I came away unsatisfied – not dissatisfied – just mentally undernourished. Here’s why. Julia is the main protagonist, in fact she’s the only protagonist in the 2015 immediate scene because husband Rob and daughter Lily are such weedy stereotypes. Okay Rob is there, but he’s described either as no more than a ‘pair of arms’ or he's too busy tying the silk tie Julia's brought him from Rome. And I know child dialogue is tricky, but there are some exemplary models out there in the form of Maisie in Henry James’ ‘What Maisie Knew’, or Thea in Willa Cather’s ‘Song of the Lark’, so why does Lily have to be so artificial? During her quest, Julia meets up with musical buddy Gerta and discovers academic Francesca, but they’re only bit parts. Basically, Julia doesn’t interact with anybody. There’s no relationship going on. The nearest thing to any relationship is between Lorenzo and Laura in the 130 page flashback! I’m probably wrong, but I would have preferred more immediate scene with just ‘cameo’ glimpses as Julia gradually uncovers the past. The flashbacks to my mind contain too many social and political facts of which the majority of readers are already only too well aware. I felt that this novel reads like two different narratives which because they’re so difficult to weld together, Gerritsen makes her plot unnecessarily complex. For instance, after the third installment of historical flashback, and in order to achieve the denouement within the ‘statutory’ 300 or so pages the action feels rushed, with no opportunity for suspense or tension build. Too much medical information-dumping, too much historical fact, and not enough character interaction. Fast literature which, like fast food is easy to swallow but leaves you feeling unsatisfied. But that is only my view, someone else may see it completely differently.
Julia is a great violinist and while on a trip she finds a waltz that intrigues her. But the first time she plays it something terrible happens. Her family is in torment. She wants and needs to find out more about the composer.
The story flits between Julia in present day and Lorenzo, the composer living in Italy during the war. Life is becoming dangerous for Jews throughout Italy. Can he and his family be safe?
This was a great read, as with most of Tess’ books. The whole of Lorenzo’s story will stay with me for a long time. It was a real history lesson.
I highly recommend this book.