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