The Lucy Variations is Sara Zarr’s latest novel, due out March 2013. Lucy Beck-Moreau used to be a child pianist prodigy; she did the circuit of competitions and concerts, and was expected to continue performing throughout her adolescence. She comes from a wealthy and talented family, and her grandfather, a lover of music and performance, has the resources to ensure Lucy’s successful career. However, after having a breakdown on stage during a performance, Lucy quit playing piano and hasn’t been near one since. Her family, for the most part, tiptoes around her, except for her grandfather whose disappointment is palpable.
Making her exit from a career in music even worse is the fact that her younger brother Gus is on the same path that she veered from. After Gus’s piano teacher dies unceremoniously in the Beck-Moreau living room, Lucy’s grandfather interviews and hires a young man named Will to replace her. When she watches the way Will teaches Gus, she believes that she might be able to find a way back to playing the piano, even if it is only to play for herself.
However, it’s a long road to returning, as Lucy must deal with the daily disappointment of her grandfather, the heavy sense of the way she has let him down hanging over the house that they all live in together. After quitting, Lucy had to return to school; she attends a high school with her two best friends, although she consistently has trouble getting to school on time. She is used to the flexible schedule her musical arts allowed her, and still can’t get a handle on normal, everyday life.
Zarr has allowed for so many textual nuances in The Lucy Variations. She references contemporary and classic music almost constantly, as a way of describing Lucy’s taste and character. She also points towards the way that art can shape a person as much as family, school, and society can. Zarr includes “Lucy’s Love List” at the back of the book, a collection of the music discussed throughout and the reason why each song has been included. It’s a fun extratextual move from reading to listening, and I found that I did youtube many of the songs as they were mentioned throughout the novel, and again when I found the list. For a book about music, Zarr does emphasize the ability to find a way to listen to Lucy’s story as well as to read it. Lucy’s interactions with her friends and family are so carefully described, and the way that her performance, followed by her leaving it behind, has affected her life is visible even in the way that she interacts with the people around her. Thanksgiving is a particular highlight of The Lucy Variations, not just for the spread of food described, but also for the way that Lucy experiences a normal holiday away from the pressures of both her mom and her grandfather.
I read The Lucy Variations around the same time that I was reading Love and Other Perishable Items, and I was struck by the similarities between each, namely, the way their young female protagonists crush on much older men. In Zarr’s novel, Lucy is enamored of both Gus’s piano teacher and her own high school English teacher. Zarr emphasizes what it is, exactly, that these two men hold for Lucy, and how her life performing for an audience has shaped her concept of normalcy.
As well, The Lucy Variations felt very similar to a Deb Caletti book. It had a good, strong story that used beautiful and surprising writing to support a likeable protagonist. Zarr’s books are so remarkably different from one another that it’s difficult to compare The Lucy Variations to any title that has come before. It is hard to believe that How to Save a Life preceded this title, and Zarr’s ability to so completely step outside of one novel, set of characters, story, form, and style in order engage with something different surprises me every time I read one of her books.