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The Lucy Variations

The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr
Little, Brown Books For Young Readers, May 2013
Reviewed from ARC

The Lucy Variations

If you stop doing the thing that defined you and made you special for most of your life, who are you and can you ever move on?

The Lucy Variations is a meditation on the classic young adult themes of loss, identity formation, and relationships – platonic, familial, and romantic. What makes Sara Zarr’s novel unique is that it is also a novel about talent, artistry, commitment, and the consequences of being a professional before you’re an adult. The Lucy Variations succeeds as the former, but excels as the latter.

The  details of Lucy’s life as a professional performing teen (told mostly in flashbacks) are wonderfully observed: the careful planning of her clothes and hair for performances, the thinly veiled competitive conversations with peers who she is told to treat as competition, the satisfaction she feels when she is recognized as a famous musical prodigy. Also well-done is Zarr’s utilization of how small any community is when everyone’s connected via the web. Lucy knows that blogs have speculated about her and she uses Google heavily when she wants information about her brother’s new teacher, Will.

When the novel begins, Lucy hasn’t touched a piano in eight months, and is adjusting to “normal” teenage life; here too Zarr navigates the intricacies of Lucy’s personality with aplomb. As a rising star in the world of classical music, she had power as an important person, but almost no power in her own life with every major decision handled by her mother and grandfather. Learning that her family hid her grandmother’s terminal illness from her so that she could play in a prestigious competition, Lucy reacts to her grief and anger by abruptly ending her career. But Zarr shows that the transition hasn’t been easy. Sprinkled throughout the novel are clues that although Lucy has grown up thinking of herself as an adult—several different minor characters remark that Lucy seems mature or looks older—without the piano, she just a teenager.  The rebuilding of her identity is the essence of the story. The supporting cast is equally well written even if they do not receive equal time. We believe in their rich inner lives because Lucy’s reactions are realistic and accurate and they mostly behave in ways that make sense (we’ll get to that in a moment).

Accuracy in this novel is important because Zarr’s protagonist is a young, wealthy, professional musician who is still connected to the elite world of competitive classical music. Vague representation would seem a result of ignorance, and inaccuracy would significantly alter all aspects of the novel. If Zarr had decided to have her characters practice less than the many hours actually required to perform on a competitive level, would there have been any concern that Gus wouldn’t practice enough after Madame Temnikova’s death? And if Zarr had failed to include a pianist’s need to keep their nails perfectly trimmed, Lucy couldn’t pocket Will’s nail clippers as a memento to feel close to him. It’s impressive that the details are correct and used to deepen the characters and themes.

If we’re talking about accuracy, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the music. Good gracious, does Sara Zarr know classical music! (And if she doesn’t, she does a tremendous job of sounding like a connoisseur). She uses musical terminology appropriately and accurately, without ever sounding like an encyclopedia entry. The pieces and composers referenced reflect an understanding and love of classical music, which is essential for accuracy when writing about professional musicians.

Halfway through the book, Lucy says she loves Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I think I audibly groaned when I read this. My thoughts went back to an earlier scene when she’s listening to Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto riding in a car with her friends. These two pieces are two of the most recognizable pieces of classical music, used in countless movies and commercials, but then Zarr earns her street cred. Lucy says:

“Okay. Beethoven’s Fifth. You know how you’re not supposed to say that one? I mean that might be the only classical piece half the world knows, so if you’re … you know, if you’re us … you’re supposed to have a better, cooler, more obscure answer. But I freaking love it. … The part in the third movement when the cellos have been playing and then the French horns come in? And that clarinet stuff in the second, when they’re running counter to the flutes. Love.”

For Zarr to acknowledge that Beethoven’s Fifth is an obvious favorite, but then describe why Lucy loves the piece—it’s a clever way to include outsiders and wink at experts in the same moment. (And seriously, if you haven’t listened to the whole thing, do yourself a favor and at least listen to the third movement. You can listen while you read on. You’ll thank me later.) Most importantly, we learn that when Lucy gave up performing, she didn’t stop loving classical music and it is love that will bring her back to playing.

Love is everywhere in The Lucy Variations. Beauty and love are the two major themes, and although at times a she’s a little heavy-handed, Zarr’s message is consistent and reinforced through the characters’ actions: whatever you do, do it for yourself and with love in your heart and you will create something beautiful.

But.. I did say the characters mostly behave in ways that make sense so let’s talk about Lucy’s concert, which highlights the best and worst elements of Zarr’s writing.

Again, the use of music here is incredible. There is enough description in the moment to know that Lucy is making a daring move, performing a piece she loves to announce that she is back on her own terms. Unlike the showy slam-dunk Brahms piece she is supposed to play, the Glass that she performs is uncomplicated and a piece that she plays with all of the emotion in her body. (I sincerely hope that everyone who has read this novel listened to both Philip Glass’ Metamorphosis I and any Brahms piano sonata to fully appreciate this moment.)

I’ll admit that I got swept up in the emotion and drama, but it’s the one part of the novel when Lucy just doesn’t add up as a character. Before the winter showcase begins Lucy realizes that Will has betrayed her trust and used her return to performing to get attention for him as well. In the time it takes for the first two pianists to perform, Lucy recovers from this emotional blow with a mature clarity that is lovely and triumphant, but doesn’t feel well deserved. Just as you think Lucy may walk off the stage as she did in Prague, she sits down and plays Metamorphosis I.

It’s an aspirational ending that I applaud with my heart, but my head thinks it’s a little too neat and symmetrical, designed to contrast with the earlier trauma. It doesn’t ring true to the character Zarr has developed over hundreds of pages. The novel has been so accurate technically and emotionally up to this point, this resolution feels rushed.

In fact, I have an issue with the timeline in general. While so much of this novel is pitch perfect this seemed to be the major problematic element. In approximately seven weeks, Lucy decides to play piano again, develops a massive crush on her new teacher, learns how to put love in her playing, and maturely reacts to a betrayal that rivals the one that initially made her quit piano in the first place. All of this in addition to subplots about her strained friendships and relationships with her family: it’s badly paced, and is a disservice to the character development and worldbuilding displayed in the novel.

Lucy’s emotional journey is the whole point of this novel. I was so invested in her because I kept thinking this is a book I should have read when I was a teenager, but then the rushed ending made me stop believing in her as a character and led me to scrutinize all of her actions and the rest of the novel’s timeline. Had the ending unfolded in a way that was truer to the character perhaps the book would be less dramatic, but it would have validated the whirlwind of events and been more believable.

So does The Lucy Variations have what it takes to be a serious contender? We’ll need to look at the rest of the year’s slate, of course, but the flaws in pacing were so notable that it’s hard to see this one rising to the very top of any piles, despite all the impressive qualities packed in. Do you love the ending? Think the pacing is perfect? Sound off–see what I did there?–in the comments!

About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.


  1. After reading How to Save a Life and especially Story of a Girl, I had really high expectations going into The Lucy Variations. Oh, how I wish this had been The Great Sara Zarr novel… but me, it just was a big letdown, one that I really didn’t expect.
    After finishing the novel, I read up on Zarr’s website about how this book came to be , and how she wanted a change: “to get away from first person and see what third could open up. I wanted to tell a new kind of story for me. I wanted my character’s crisis to be more existential and less tangible, more like the kind of crisis I was experiencing myself, creatively and at midlife.” The openness with which Zarr talks about the creative process (and the fact that she was struggling with herself as a “creative” person) is really endearing, and for that you have to give her props. However, despite this, as a (critical) reader, I can’t but say that her decision to move away from 1st person towards 3rd person for this particular topic – passion about music and how one’s past decisions can come to haunt you – didn’t really feel all that successful to me.
    That passion that the main character feels about the music they so desperately need…for some reason it doesn’t really transfer onto the page the way I’d hoped it would. For me it also never really felt as if Lucy was all that passionate about the music in the first place (but rather that she was forced into it, and just played along)… which is a weird thing to say, I admit, because Lucy talks about what the music means to her a lot. And this is where I think POV played a pivotal role. Most of the interactions between the characters in The Lucy Variations felt forced, which, again, I can only ascribe to the more distant 3rd person point of view approach. Moreover, none of the secondary characters are really fleshed out. The grandfather for instance seems like a cardboard caricature of the family despot, while Will is never anything besides the stereotypical (and creepy) attractive older teacher to have a crush on…

    While I do appreciate that Zarr is willing to risk failure (by her own admittance), and the fact she has challenged herself into something new, The Lucy Variations falls short of its intentions for me. And there is a huge gap here between what she probably envisioned this novel to be (although I’m not a mind reader!!), and what it actually turned out to be. A disappointing read.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Ah, so interesting to hear about Sara Zarr’s intentions for this book. It certainly helps explain why Lucy comes to such a mature decision at the end of her book. And I’m really glad I didn’t know this before writing my review.

      For me–and of course, every reader experience is different–the third person pov was refreshing and successful. It worked for me, but that could be because I related to Lucy. When I was a teen, I had spent most of my childhood as a professional performer (not on the same level or artistic discipline) and went through a similar burnout. Maybe I was able to recognize the character development because I lived it.

      The thing to understand about being a professional performer before you’re an adult is that just when you should be going through the process of identity formation, you may be locked into an identity that either you picked for yourself as a young child (which was then affirmed and reinforced by adults) or an identity that was thrust upon you based on your natural ability, not preference. It’s coming of age and going through a mid-life crisis at the same time. It is an incredibly difficult and nuanced process of parsing out what you love and what you *think* you love.

      I thought that Zarr did this beautifully in Lucy (with the exception of the ending) because I read all of this meaning in various moments. The way Lucy remembers going to the symphony, the fact that she consistently listens to classical music for pleasure, her instinct to protect Gus and ensure that he is still happy playing. Through her actions, Lucy is figuring out if she loves piano and music or if she loved the attention and importance it brought her.

      As for Grandpa Beck and Will, I also thought both of these characters transcended caricature. In fact, both represent the other side of loving music for its beauty; they do love music, that much is clear in that they’ve both devoted their lives to it, but there is evidence that they also the importance it gives them–Grandpa Beck with his $17,000 Furtwangler baton, Will with his public access show and desire to do a CD with Lucy. These men are what Lucy chooses *not* to be.

      Finally, re: third person pov. Again, my experience was that it worked for me. I always find third person limited (or omniscient) in YA refreshing because it can actually give a reader a much better idea of an entire world than first person can. It seems an appropriate choice for this novel because there is so much world building needed, and all of those details coming out of a first-person narration would inevitably sound like infodumping even if disguided in dialogue.

      • Joy Piedmont says:

        Also… I meant to include above that when I offer my reading experience and the baggage I bring to the table, I’m in no way suggesting that “I’m right, because ‘x’ and you’re wrong because you didn’t live my life.” I’m hoping to clarify my reading and gauge from all of you whether that interpretation is solid or influenced by my personal experience. 🙂

  2. I did not feel the ending was too neat. I did not get the impression that Lucy intended to completely quit music the first time around, more that she was grieving, unhappy in general with where her musical career was taking her, and wanted to protest for a number of reasons and then her grandfather took the protest into “you are finished forever.” So when she is at the concert the second time, she has more perspective. She knows that if she walks away this time, it really will be the end because no one will ever trust her again. She *has* to find a way to both protest and play.

    That being said, I thought her being at the concert in the first place was a little too convenient. At first I thought it was generally unbelievable, then I realized that Will had been pulling a lot of strings behind the scenes to make it happen. But that didn’t seem entirely realistic either. She only had a few weeks to get the piece ready. If Will wanted to make an impression, wouldn’t it have made more sense to wait a little while so she could present a complicated, polished piece instead of something easy, to further reflect on his teachings?

    • I agree with you about the ending — Lucy never intended to quit permanently, but her grandfather backed her into that position and she didn’t know how to counter it.

      For Will, I thought the impression he wanted to make was more “I have found her! I have put her back on the stage” than “She is the Best.” Which is why I thought she was going to not perform, but she realized she’d only not-perform in reaction to Will, rather than whether or not she wanted it for herself.

      • Joy Piedmont says:

        Thanks, Alys and Liz. You’re both right; Lucy’s refusal to perform is a dramatic, impulsive teenage reaction, one for which she never foresaw the consequences.

        Although her family’s obstinate anger prevents her from expressing a desire to return to music, I think it also prevented her from even *considering* the possibility. When she’s asked if she ever misses playing, she’s never sure how to respond. She’s seriously considering majoring in English in college–likely motivated by her crush on Mr. Charles–but she is attempting to envision her life without piano because she doesn’t see another way.

  3. I liked LUCY VARIATIONS; and for the record, not a child performer or any musical background.

    I think Zarr did a great job with a child who has been treated as an adult trying to grow up the way she wants and how that “viewed as an adult” has affected her, especially in her relationships with men and how she sees herself. (I’m actually thinking a bit on Miley Cyrus, right now, as I think of how another sees oneself then changes how one sees oneself.)

    I thought it was very delicately done, in part because even creepy Will does not cross the line. Lucy can act out, testing different things — the red dress at the pier, kissing the sailor, becoming English scholar for her English teacher — and it remains safe, which is how it should be. The teacher knows that this is a stage for teens, especially this teen. The sailor sees her as a person in a pretty dress who flirts, not as a thing he can now claim because she wore a red dress. Will comes the closest to abusing that.

  4. RE: classical music, I dunno Joy. The only composers mentioned in the book are Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler (parenthetically), Lizst, Chopin, and . . . Glass. (I might be missing a few but you get the point). I mean, I don’t even really listen to classical much these days, but surely the concert circuit includes something from the modernist and postmodernists periods? What’s with the scene where Lucy listens to “a lesser-known composer from” the Early Romantic era? Why can’t we know who that is? It all felt a bit Classical For the Masses to me.

    I don’t find this a major point, but it distracted me a bit.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Hmm, that’s an interesting take, Mark. I hadn’t considered a lack of modern/postmodern composers because my impression of classical music today is that most solo recitals consist of pieces by the big names, with occasional nods to 20th and 21st century composers. (I am not an expert on solo piano recital repertoire though). Also, Lucy does play Metamorphosis I. Yeah, Philip Glass is probably the most recognizable name is 20th/21st century classical music, but I think Zarr was right to stick to the more familiar names because for most readers, obscure names might actually take them out of the story.

  5. I liked this book, as I cannot get enough of the way Zarr perfectly gets into the heads of teens and the pitch-perfect voices she gives them. And I also liked that it was a departure from her usual average-but-hardly-average teens. That said, for me it was another 3-3.5 star book from her. Which is definitely better than so much stuff that gets published for teens, but I do yet await that magnum opus (no pun intended) that hits the ball out of the park.
    I actually enjoyed the amount of classical music that was interwoven – seemed like enough to introduce readers to it while not being overwhelming and “teachy”.

  6. My friends are going to love this

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