Review of Tess Gerritsen’s “Playing With Fire”

Indiebound/Barnes & Nobles/Amazon/Books-A-Million

Synopsis, Taken From IndieBound:

A gripping standalone thriller by the “New York Times” bestselling author of the Rizzoli & Isles series
In a shadowy antiques shop in Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell happens upon a curious piece of music the “Incendio” waltz and is immediately entranced by its unusual composition. Full of passion, torment, and chilling beauty, and seemingly unknown to the world, the waltz, its mournful minor key, its feverish arpeggios, appear to dance with a strange life of their own. Julia is determined to master the complex work and make its melody heard.
Back home in Boston, from the moment Julia’s bow moves across the strings, drawing the waltz’s fiery notes into the air, something strange is stirred and Julia’s world comes under threat. The music has a terrifying and inexplicable effect on her young daughter, who seems violently transformed. Convinced that the hypnotic strains of “Incendio” are weaving a malevolent spell, Julia sets out to discover the man and the meaning behind the score.
Her quest beckons Julia to the ancient city of Venice, where she uncovers a dark, decades-old secret involving a dangerously powerful family that will stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.


A complimentary copy of this book was provided to me, in exchange for an honest review.
Known mainly for her Rizzoli and Isles series of thriller novels, Tess Gerritsen’s newest thriller fiction novel Playing with Fire dabbles more into the historical fiction terrain, while still retaining signature elements of her thriller writing. These assets include the ability to write clearly with measured depth that never detracts whatsoever from the progression of the plot. Meaning, the story never gets stuck into the quagmire of tedious exposition. From the outset of the novel, Tess Gerritsen, with her usual flair for slowly building up mystery and deep conflict, has a story that immediately ensnares the reader’s attention. Moreover, the historical elements of the story never feel tacked-on, or contrived, by any means.

The plot itself is fairly unique, and shrouded in mystery. Right from the beginning, we’re swept up into the tumultuous drama of Julia Ansdell’s life, where she discovers a piece of music, which she intuitively feels that she needs to own. After paying an exorbitant fee for the rare piece of music, she returns home to play it for the first time. With clean, fluid descriptions, the scene unravels into chaos, which overwhelms the story with a sense of dread and apprehension, just to the right degree to keep readers engaged fully in the unfurling of the story itself.

Bringing in a story about the Italian Jewish community, right around the time of WWII, in a very seamless manner ,the story throws many wonderful re-directions and reversals of within the forward momentum of the story, that only keeps the reader suspended in state of unabated tension that Tess Gerritsen manages to dexterously throw in much needed nuance into all areas of the story, relying fully on her medical expertise (as she formerly worked as a surgeon before taking up full-time novel writing) and deft eye for research throughout to keep readers engaged fully in the plot at all times.

Her sparse, though detailed writing, is the mark of a very talented novelist, and Playing with Fire allows Tess Gerritsen to utilize her best skills at writing, in order to tell a surprisingly poignant story about the particular hardships the Jewish community in certain areas of Italy faced, during the darkest, most disillusioning moments of World War II, when the Nazis were occupying many territories within Europe. The story uses dramatic irony to build our own ongoing tension, since we know what is bound to happen to many Jews during this time,so we implore them silently while reading, to move far away from Europe, to hopefully avoid the miserable fate of being taken to one of the many concentration camps that existed during this time.

While being a deeply memorable and enthralling story, there were a few snags, and that consists of the question of whether the ending was a bit too far-fetched and perhaps easy, for a story that build up the promise in the minds of readers for maybe a more surprising, innovative ending. Without spoiling the specifics, it just seemed that a certain revelation in the plot felt a little underwhelming and dubious, considering the experiences this character faced throughout the story. In some ways, a very different outcome may have been more interesting, though this ending did tie things up between both the past/present stories very neatly, perhaps a little too neatly in my opinion.

Nonetheless, the story regales you with a somber story about the plight of the Jewish community in Italy during the time of WWII, along with providing some commentary on the psychological connection that we have with music, which weaves itself throughout the parts of the story taking place in either the past or present with a very different pair of characters. Yet their same struggle is reciprocated, that of finding music to be a mysterious sublimation of their subconscious anxieties. Music always seems to be the nonverbal expression of manifesting those emotions that are indefinite and elusive with words, but feel symmetrical and perhaps deeply understood through the more abstracted mode of musical expression. Regardless of a few disappointments, Tess Gerritsen’s Playing with Fire is another strongly-written new novel from a very talented, reliably good writer of suspence or thriller fiction.

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