I confess that I am one of those people that say: “I love music.” Probably a lot. And I do, in a certain sense of the word. I love music in that I find emotional connection and release in it. I love music in that I come home from work some days, pour myself a glass of wine, put on the Cure and dance around my lounge room. In that I listen to it every day without exception. But when I stop to really think about it, I see how limited my appreciation of music really is. I watch my six-year-old niece playing Chopin over Skype, her small fingers confident, or my sister, curved around her cello, and I feel like I’m listening to a language I don’t understand. Like I’m standing in a room full of words I can’t translate, or trying to grasp something I want but can’t get a firm hold on. I gave up on music in Year 3, after my music teacher yelled at me and I cried in front of the class boo hoo #FirstWorldProblems, yeah I know. I recall deciding right then and there that I was bad at it, although in hindsight, that’s probably not strictly true. But I know now that I won’t ever understand it the way some people do. It won’t be the backbone of my life, upon which everything else hinges and grows. This is where Jessica Martinez excels in Virtuosity, in portraying a character whose life is intrinsically bound up with music, where it saturates every element of her existence, for better or worse. For Carmen Bianchi, a talented violinist, her art is also her life. Her passion is her future – and winning the Guarneri music prize is critical. Yet when Carmen comes face to face with the competition, Jeremy King, she is forced to confront what is really important, and at what cost she is willing to win. I was swept up in this book more than I expected to be, in all honesty. Given the subject matter, and the protagonist’s position, I didn’t think I would be able to connect with it on any level. However, Martinez has crafted a very compelling story, dealing with family, self-doubt and choice that is both fascinating and honest. It’s a deceptively simple premise that tackles a number of complex issues, not the least of which is Carmen’s complicated relationship with her Mother, who is also her manager. For me, this was the most difficult part of the story to read. The depiction of Carmen’s mother’s lack of belief in own daughter was kind of heartbreaking. To see how much the lines between love and obsession were blurred, their relationship tainted by Diana’s own broken dreams and drive for success, was genuinely upsetting. In this respect, Martinez’s characterisation was very effective – rather than painting Diana was a one-note villain, the various nuances of the mother-daughter relationship and its unhealthy dynamic were well drawn. Carmen’s confusion and fear of trusting her own judgement felt completely understandable, given the web of parental love and clear manipulation she was caught in. Similarly, I felt the way Carmen responded to Jeremy was believable, in terms of her inability to separate her burgeoning feelings for him from her compulsion to question his motives. While I felt that the mutual attraction was a little rushed, perhaps too quick to feel realistic, I did believe the hesitation to trust on both sides, and the difficulty in overcoming the enormous pressure on them due to their being in direct competition with each other. For most of the story, I found myself questioning Jeremy along with Carmen, unsure which side of him was real, how much of his interaction with her was genuine and how much was calculated. But essentially, this isn’t so much a story about love, as much as it’s a story about Carmen reclaiming her right to choose, to take control of her life and decide what is important to her. It’s also about Carmen confronting her insecurities, or least acknowledging them. This was possibly the part that was the most resonant for me, watching Carmen struggle with doubt and fear and trying to untangle where the medicated calm ended and she began, where routine and commitment separated from her love for playing violin. I do wish that the ending had shown more of the repercussions of Carmen’s choice. That it came with a price is clearly implied, however I did want to see a little more page time devoted to the real-life and probably long-lasting ramifications for the relationship between Carmen and Diana. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed Virtuosity. It’s a solid, impressive debut and I would definitely read Martinez’s further work.