Tess Gerritsen was a tourist in Venice when she happened upon memorial plaques in one of the city’s squares, Campo Ghetto Nuovo, that told the heartbreaking stories of 250 Jews who were arrested and deported to Nazi death camps. “Only eight returned alive,” Gerritsen says in the historical notes at the end of her new novel, Playing with Fire. In fact, from 1943 to 1944, 20 percent of Italy’s Jews, 47,000, perished.
Gerritsen found herself preoccupied with the deaths of these Italian Jews. She found a way to honor their lives by telling their stories in her new book. Gerritsen already has a large and loyal following for her Rizzoli & Isles series that has inspired a successful USA series starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. She took a risk with this novel, a stand alone that is not a traditional mystery. But that risk pays off. Playing with Fire is fiction, but Gerritsen has done her homework and recreates the wartime environment in Italy where Jewish Italians, and those who befriended them, were targeted by Mussolini’s Black Shirts.
The novel opens in present time with Julia Ansdell, a violinist who has just performed with her quartet at a festival in Rome. After purchasing a silk tie for her husband, Rob, and a ruffled dress for her three year-old daughter, Lily, she finds a present for herself in an antiques shop. The ancient book, an Italian edition with Gipsy written on the cover, includes old musical compositions including one composed by L. Tedesco called “Incendio.” Looking over the notes, Julia can hear the music in her head, a waltz that begins elegantly but soon becomes a frantic tumble of notes. She knows she has to have the book so that she can play this incredible and long forgotten piece.
Arriving home, Julia’s husband is thrilled with his tie and Lily dances around in her new dress. Although still suffering from jet lag, Julia puts up her music stand and, watching her daughter play out of the corner of her eye, begins to play “Incendio.” Lost in trying to master the composition’s difficult passages, Julia forgets about her daughter until she feels a small hand grasp her leg. She finds Lily’s hands covered with blood and then discovers the family cat, Juniper, has been stabbed numerous times with a small gardening fork. A second incident involving Lily, also while Julia is playing “Incendio,” throws the family into chaos. Julia, now fearful of her daughter, also believes that playing “Incendio” has somehow unleashed an evil in her life.
We then find ourselves in Venice before World War II. Lorenzo is a violinist whose father, Bruno, is a violinmaker. Professor Augosto Balboni taps Lorenzo to play a duet with his daughter, Laura, a cellist, hoping they will win an upcoming competition sponsored by Ca’ Foscari, the university. Lorenzo resists until he meets Laura and falls instantly in love with her. The two grow close as they rehearse several times a week. Yet when it comes time for the competition, politics intervene. Lorenzo is barred from competing because he is Jewish. And Laura, always headstrong, also finds herself in trouble when she pushes Lorenzo onto the stage and the two perform in a brave yet outrageous act of defiance.
Gerritsen ramps up the tension with both stories. Julia’s situation worsens. She’s obsessed with finding out more about “Incendio” while rebuffing her husband’s attempts to have her committed to a psychiatric facility. Lorenzo’s family refuses to heed Balboni’s advice to flee Italy. Their fate is sealed when the Black Shirts begin to round up Jewish Italians and place them on trains to Poland.
Playing with Fire benefits from strong characters. While we know that so many Italian Jews died during the war, Gerritsen places us inside their lives, letting us feel their terror as they see their freedoms slipping away. And settiing their stories in Venice, one of Italy’s most beloved and treasured cities, reminds us that even that beautiful place was, nonetheless, touched by evil.
Playing with Fire
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