Playing with Fire is an ambitious thriller, but the two-pronged plot may require more development to establish its authenticity, the tale begun when a talented violinist purchases a sheet of music she finds in an eccentric little shop in Venice. There’s apparently some mystery behind the origin of the music Julia Ansdell discovers, so she requests more information about the composer from the elderly Venetian shopkeeper, who promises to make inquiries on her behalf.
The origin of the haunting, somewhat dissonant composition remains on her mind when Julia returns to Boston. Anxious to master the composition, Julia has only begun to learn the intricacies of the music when her small daughter’s shocking behavior distracts her from the task. A second try also generates an aberrant reaction by three-year-old Lily, the only common element to the child’s behavior the music Julia is playing each time. Lily’s reaction is so volatile, so disturbing, that Julia takes her daughter on a round of visits to medical specialists, hoping to to ascertain what has prompted the unacceptable actions of her beautiful, formerly well-adjusted daughter.
Against her motherly instincts, Julia draws away from the child, appalled by
Lily’s actions, husband Rob concerned that Lily will suffer from her mother’s
current emotional disengagement. Absent sending Lily away to the care of a relative, there seems no solution to the dilemma. When Julia considers a possible connection to “Incendio”, the hand-written music she brought home, she believes the only recourse is to return to Venice to learn more about the composer of this extraordinary piece that has driven a painful wedge between mother and daughter.
The novel breaks from contemporary reality in Boston to 1938 Venice. A gifted young musician, Lorenzo Todesco, is about to enter a prestigious competition in a duet with cellist Laura Balboni, the daughter of a family friend. Venice has not yet become alarmed by the tremors of war in Germany, many still believing that Mussolini will protect the Jewish population from harm. But the night of the competition, an ugly reaction to Lorenzo and Laura’s performance casts a pall upon the festivities, a precursor of the treatment of Jews spreading through Europe as Hitler’s dogma flourishes. Five years later, on the eve of the deportation of the Jews from Venice, Lorenzo and Laura find each other again only to be parted. The young man is separated from the woman he loves and the city of his inspiration as his family joins the others headed to “labor camps” from which they will never return. Dead at twenty-six, Lorenzo Todesco’s only remaining composition now belongs to an American violinist who has no idea of its tragic inception.
While the chapters about Lorenzo and Laura’s inspired performance and blooming romance add texture to the tale, capturing the uncertainty and despair of World War II Venice, the present-day complications Julia faces are more difficult to sustain, as her antipathy to Lily continues unabated and her husband withdraws, unable to fathom Julia’s increasingly bizarre behavior and isolation from her family. Her sudden return to Venice and the unexpected violence she encounters shift the focus back to consequences of Julia’s impulsive purchase.
As past and present merge, Julia barely escapes harm when her life is threatened. Gerritsen ties loose ends together in the final pages, but I confess to feeling disappointment at the direction of the resolution, too much left unsaid, the joining of the present and the historical somewhat jarring.