I am going to admit it... Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez is a book I read because I loved the cover. The summary makes it seem like a romance that just happens to be set during a major violin competition. So I was expecting something fairly fluffy and feel good romancy.
Umm. No. Not at all. There is so much more to the story than that. SO very much more. Carmen is an intensely passionate and complex character. She's an amazingly talented violinist, but she's also a teenager, a person, even though she's never really been given the chance to be normal. She's preparing for a huge violin competition, THE big violin competition and she's the favorite to win. But there is one other person who might be able to take the prize from her, a boy from England named Jeremy and Carmen becomes almost obsessed with discovering who he is so that she can determine whether or not she needs to be nervous. And what happens when they begin to get to know each other completely changes Carmen. And not in that annoying — OMG I like, have my first, like, crush, on like, this boy, like you know, he's like, well, like hot and stuff? — way but in a way that makes her question why she's really doing what she's doing and how far is too far in pursuit of dreams.
This book was so much more than I expected it to be and I absolutely loved it. From the teaser at the beginning where Carmen is contemplating dropping her Stradivarius violin off the balcony (!!!! NOOOO!!!) to the very end when the story comes to its ambiguous resolution, I was completely and totally involved in this story and I felt the story, nearly as strongly as if I were living it.
Almost every part of this story was perfectly blended. The side characters and their stories were fully developed and contained just enough detail that I really felt like I knew them as well. I find that I am lacking sufficient eloquence to do this story justice, but believe me, it is worthy of every bit of praise it has received. One of the most complex relationships in this story is that of Carmen and her mother. I am going to be intentionally vague here, because there is much to this story that you must learn on your own, but it is one of the most toxic relationships I have ever seen. On the surface, all seems fine. They have moments were they are just quiet together, being a mother and daughter and basking in the fact that they have a strong bond. And initially, I actually cheered that a parent in a YA novel was a good influence, active and involved in her child's life. But then things start happening that make you wonder at what is going on beneath the surface and I ended the book with absolute disgust and disdain for that mother and not a small amount of hatred.
My first inclining that all was not as well as it seemed was when young 11 or 12 year old Carmen has her first bout of crippling stage fright and, rather than work through it with her, her mother immediately signs her up for anti-anxiety beta blockers, because there's no way she can cope on her own and her career can't take another performance like that one. What type of mother does that?! Has such little faith in the abilities of their child and makes that painfully clear to them?! Carmen develops a psychological dependency on these beta blockers and her mother encourages this, telling her she is no good without them and that if she needs more, to just take more and all things will be fine. And this ends up being a large part of Carmen's struggles later in the novel.
I do wish that more time had been given to Carmen's struggle with addiction, because it is a dangerous and powerful thing. It seemed too easy for Carmen to overcome her dependency, especially given how strongly her mother pushed her to get back on them and that confused me some. I wish it had played a stronger role in the novel but as it stands, it was a stepping stone of sorts to the larger issue at play, which is her relationship with her mother/agent and where that all went wrong.
For most of the novel, Carmen is torn between wanting to be with Jeremy and not feeling like she is able to trust him (there's that mom again). And my heart hurt for her. It's impossibly hard to feel like the person that you are falling for is out to sabotage you. But really, Jeremy was a great person. He's confused as well, trying to reconcile each of the parts of himself into one person and figure out what is truly important in life. Watching the two of them start to learn together was wonderful and challenging and just made my heart happy.
The climax of the novel, which includes Carmen contemplating the destruction of an irreplaceable violin made me so emotional I had a hard time even reading. I was such a mixture of fury, disbelief, pain and fear. Carmen is not in a good place at that point, and I don't blame her. It was devastating to read but so well written.
Martinez really understands how to write a book, how to fully engage the reader and how to make one care completely for the characters within. I am going to be avidly watching Martinez for whatever she comes out with next. There is no way I can use one review to adequately describe every part of this novel that was great, to talk about each of the things that I loved, that really worked for this book. So just take my word for it (and the word of lots and lots of others who have also loved this one) and go read it. This is one time when even that stunning cover isn't enough for the brilliance of the story within. So seriously guys. Read this book.