INTERNATIONAL THRILLER WRITERS AWARD FINALIST • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY LOS ANGELES TIMES AND SUSPENSE MAGAZINE
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.
Praise for Playing with Fire
“Compelling . . . I defy you to read the first chapter and not singe your fingers reading the rest.”—David Baldacci
“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
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book had me from the first page. The plot was mesmerizing . Although I am a Rizzoli and Isles fan, this was a different and refreshing read. The story was compelling and totally tugged at the heartstrings. Tess Gerritsen has done it once again, a truly gifted author. Love her works with a passion!
Review Julia buys a piece of sheet music in Italy. This leads to many strange and unsettling occurrences. When Julia decides to find more about the composer, she gets more than she bargained for. With her marriage on the line and her life in danger, Julia discovers there is more to this music than meets the eye. I enjoyed many aspects of this novel. Unlike Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series, this tale has a good bit of historical fiction. The characters are great and the story about the music just kept getting better and better. When it flashes back to WWII, I was in heaven, my all time favorite era. The only issue I have with many of Tess Gerritsen’s books is I figure a lot of them out before the end. This one had a few surprises for me which added to the story and my love of the tale. I have not read Tess Geritsen in a long while. This was like rediscovering a new friend.
I just finished Tess Gerritsen’s latest novel Playing with Fire. It is told from two different perspectives. Julia Ansdell is in Rome, Italy. She was playing a festival nearby (she is a violinist). She is picking up souvenirs for her husband, Rob and her daughter, Lily (a cute, little blonde) before heading home. Julia notices an antique store with old music and books. Julia collects old and unusual music. She picks up a book with gypsy music and a single sheet of music falls out. It is handwritten with the title Incendio by L. Todesco (means fire). The first time Julia plays the music at home while enjoying a day with her daughter, Lily. The next thing she knows is her cat is dead and Lily is holding the garden tool that killed the cat. A few days later Julia is playing the music again (and Lily is home) and she is stabbed in the leg with a piece of broken glass. Lily is saying “hurt Mommy” according to Julia. Multiple tests on run on Lily and the only thing they discover is that the music seems to be familiar to Lily (according to a test they performed). Julia withdraws from her daughter. The ever helpful husband believes the problem must lie with his wife. He wants her to go to a specialist (a psychiatrist that helps fathers get custody of their children). Julia is determined to find out more about the music. Lorenzo Todesco is an Italian-Jew in Venice, Italy in 1938. A friend of his grandfather’s wants him to perform a duet with his granddaughter, Laura (a lovely, bubbly, strong blonde). While rehearsing the two fall in love. But then they are unable to perform because Lorenzo is Jewish. Laura tries to save Lorenzo and his family, but they refuse to leave or realize how terrible it is going to get for Jews in Italy. Lorenzo ends up in an Italian concentration camp where he is picked to be a musician. Lorenzo plays music with other musicians to cover up the sounds of the poor souls being murdered in the camps. Lorenzo writes a special piece of music that he titled Incendio. Playing with Fire is an interesting story. I enjoyed reading this novel. I feel that the World War II theme has been overplayed this year, but I did like Tess Gerritsen’s book. It is different from the other novels I have read. It is overall a very well written book. The one thing I did not like was the abrupt ending. The book was going along at a good pace and then someone hit the brakes (whiplash). I enjoyed how the two perspectives tied together, but I was disappointed because it did not contain a great paranormal ending (the book felt like a paranormal book, but it really is not). I give Playing with Fire 4 out of 5 stars (which means I liked it). I received a complimentary copy of Playing with Fire from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
An exciting and enriching novel!
I have always loved reading Tess Gerritsen books because of the mystery and suspense. When I saw the synopsis of this book, it seemed like it was a little different from her other books as far as subject matter. I also am very interested in music and World War II. I'm not sure why I have an interest in such a gruesome time in our history but I tend to gravitate towards books about them. This book combines WWII, music, mystery, and suspense which makes it a hit in my book. I really loved this story; the intertwining of the music, history, and love story was so riveting. I also loved how she explained at the end how she came about writing this story. It's always nice to get that kind of insight as to what drives an author to write a particular story. I love the fact that the music that is played in this book is available to listen to. It makes the reading experience much more in depth and helps to put you in the time and moment. With the state of the world today, this book is extremely pertinent. It's about the persecution of Jews by the Nazis, how they were discriminated against by everyone, the fear that everyone felt if they were seen even talking to a Jew. The back and forth from the present and past was wonderful to read as well because things that happen, have infinite repercussions. You never know what could happen with something that seems so innocuous to you at the time. It could have a huge impact on the future that you couldn't possibly fathom.
Wow! A compelling story that holds you from the first chapter. Very well written weaving today with history. Once I started it, I had to keep reading it until I finished it.
Wonderful story of romance, intrege & history,
Each page had me wanting more!
I have only read a couple if ger books and this one was awesome!!!
The historical aspect is so intriguing and from what i can tell mostly accurate from a fictional standpoint. Definitely a page turner. Definitely emotional. Could not stop reading
hard to put down. well written historical novel.
Tess Gerritsen, author of the Rizzoli and Isles books, has written an engaging, stand alone thriller. Two narratives run through Playing with Fire in parallel until the end ties them together. Although it doesn't take a great leap to see most of the connections, there is a final twist that works well. The first narrative is about a contemporary second chair violinist, Julia, who, while in Rome, finds an old book of gypsy (Roma) music and inside is a hand written piece with the title Incendio. Immediately she is taken by the beauty and complexity of the piece. However, she returns home to Boston and plays it, getting lost in the intensity and trying to play the difficult piece. She stops to find that the family cat is dead and her three-year old daughter is holding the garden implement that caused the cat's death. This sets off a chain of events that has her obsessively seeking the origins of the composition. The second narrative takes place in Venice around the opening of the Second World War and is the story of Lorenzo, a violinist. His story, and that of Incendio is fraught with the tensions between a world gone mad and the belief that somehow, life will change for the better. Playing with Fire moves at a brisk clip and the stakes become deadly for the two characters for seemly disparate reasons. Despite the pace, Gerritsen explores the underpinning questions about the nature of sanity and insanity and weaves the theme through the narratives without the exposition typical found in such weighty explorations. Is there something wrong with Julia's daughter? Is this haunting piece of music affecting her? Is Julia, whose family has its own dark history of mental illness, loosing her mind? Will someone kill to protect their secrets? Will Italy go the way of Germany and eliminate those who are different, despite their deep integration into Venetian society? Will talent and the ability to create beauty protect when nothing else will? Questions of plot become rumination on something far more interior and personal - what are we, as humans, capable of and under what conditions? The ending is a twist, yet all the pieces to solve the puzzle are there for the careful reader. Gerritsen does a fine job of balancing the history, the emotion, and the suspense with the thematic exploration of a complex topic through following the story of a haunting piece of music.
I think this has been my favorite Tess Gerritsen novel in a while. This flowed so nicely. Who would think that music could cause someone to do bad things. How would you feel if you thought your own daughter was trying to harm you. This book had a lot of twists and turns. I never knew where it was going to lead next. I loved it. Look forward to more of these.
I enjoyed this book very much. I have read many other novels by Tess Gerritsen, she is one of my favorite authors. This was a fine addition to her works. The book felt more like two shorter books. The first one tells the story of Julia, a musician who discovers a piece of old sheet music in an antique shop in Italy. The second is the story of Lorenzo, the composer of the sheet music, and his life in Nazi occupied Italy. Lorenzo's story was amazing. Very touching and compelling. If the whole book had been about him, I would have been satisfied. It was a beautiful story of love and destruction. Julia's story was a little less interesting. It seemed more ordinary. When she plays the music it seems to induce violent outbursts in her 3 year old daughter. Yet no one believes her. I was annoyed that her husband was not more supportive of her, and tried to make her feel that she was crazy. Julia runs away to Italy to track down the story of the music, and that's when her story starts to feel a little silly. But the story of Lorenzo is so tragic and beautiful that it elevates the entire book. I received a free ARC of this book from NetGalley
On the last day of a trip to Rome, Massachusetts native Julia Ansdell buys in an antique store a book of gypsy tunes that contains, between its pages, a loose sheet with the hand scribbled score of a haunting waltz that captures Julia's heart. Once at home, Julia struggles to master the waltz titled Incendio, playing it twice before she realizes her three-year-old daughter Lily is displaying aggressive behavior likely triggered by this music. But, what is this music that has such a bizarre effect on her daughter, who is its composer, and more importantly, where does it come from? As Julia sees her family disintegrating, she embarks on a mission to prove her sanity and seek the answers to the puzzle. But she'll come face to face with an enemy she didn't know she had, intent on silence her, for Incendio is the only existing link between a family patriarch and the fate of a gifted violinist in the last years of WWII. I truly enjoyed Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen. It captured my imagination as much for the modern (medical) mystery, as for the parallel account of the violinist before and during the war. Most books treating this topic go on at length, so it is remarkable that Gerritsen managed to write such a powerful story in under 300 pages. I cared about all the characters and their fates. Playing with Fire turned out to be a learning experience as well. I didn't know that Italy had a transitional concentration camp--Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste--that became an extermination camp towards war's end. The account of what happened at San Sabba was sordid and horrifying. It never ceases to amaze me how blindsided Jews were by the Holocaust. It is as if that measure of evil couldn't be fathomed. But the truth is that the signs had been there from early on, so the question becomes why did they miss it? DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Taking a break from her Rizoli and Isles books, Tess Gerritsen creates an amazing stand alone novel that transcends the mystery genre with intricate plotting and very vivid characters.
When I saw that Tess Gerritsen had a new stand alone novel being released, I jumped at the chance to read it. This ended up being a book that is really hard for me to rate. Tess Gerritsen definitely knows how to write and I liked a lot of things about this book. Unfortunately, there were some things that I didn't like about this book as well. I think that the experience of reading this book ended up being just okay for me. The story really hooked me from the very beginning and I thought that I was well on my way to a 4 or 5 star rating. I absolutely love music so when I started reading and realized that music was going to be a part of the story, I knew that I was in for a treat. One of the main characters in the book, Julia, is a violinist. Julia collects music and at the beginning of the story she acquires a piece of music while on a trip to Rome that ends up playing an important role in the story. The book lost me a little when the story shifted to tell Lorenzo's story. I am not always a fan of books with a dual story line. This is one of those cases where the two stories just don't fit together very well. I liked Lorenzo's story just as much as I did Julia's but the thread connecting the pieces was thin at best. Lorenzo is a Jewish musician living in Venice during World War II. The parts of the story that focused on Lorenzo really were often heartbreaking. My biggest problem with this book was the ending. I HATED how the book ended. I actually needed to reflect on it for a few days before I could sit down to write a review. In Julia's case the solution seemed like nothing more than a cop out. I honestly cannot remember the last time that I was so thoroughly disappointed in the ending of a book. The part of the epilogue that attempted to pull the two stories together a little better was also a huge letdown. The book had some great moments as well. There were a few really creepy scenes that really had me glued to the book. I couldn't wait to figure out what the heck was going on. There were also some moments in the book that were so vividly described that they elicited some strong emotions. In the end, I am glad that I read the book and I would recommend it to others. I plan to read more from Tess Gerritsen soon. I received an advance reader edition of this book from Random House Publishing - Ballantine via NetGalley for the purpose of providing an honest review.
Only 201 pgs