Happy Tuesday! For our Tuesday Evening Reads, we're reviewing Sara Zarr's The Lucy Variations.
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 7th 2013 by Little, Brown BFYR
Format read: Finished copy (purchased)
So when I heard that Sara Zarr was writing a book about a piano prodigy, I was intrigued enough to want to check out the book.
For Lucy, her talents manifested itself in her piano playing. Before the age of fourteen, she was a fixture on the competition circuit. People came to her concerts, and knew her name. Her future seemed definite.
However, after a tragedy provokes her into walking away and giving it all up, Lucy is now adrift in her day-to-day life. She doesn't quite fit in as an ordinary student in her regular high school, but she doesn't quite know how to get back everything that she's lost, either.
Enter Will - a new piano teacher hired to teach Lucy's little brother, Gus. A former prodigy himself, Will wants to help Lucy regain her lost faith. But can she overcome the fears of her past?
Things that worked:
I've seen a lot of reviews criticize the characters of The Lucy Variations for being unlikable, and I agree. None of the characters are likable.
Lucy's neurotic and disrespectful; her grandfather's demanding and unforgiving; Lucy's mom is too easily influenced by Lucy's grandfather, and Lucy's father is just...there. However, this is also what I loved about the Beck-Moreau family. They're neurotic. They're imperfect. But they're real.
All of the Beck-Moreaus - especially Lucy - fight, worry and obsess over their lives in a way that I think the average reader can genuinely relate to. They're not perfect, and they recognize that they're not perfect. But it doesn't stop them from continuing to wanting to strive for that elusive perfection.
I think this is one of those situations where readers will start off by thinking that the grass is definitely greener on the Beck-Moreau's side of the fence, before realizing - hey, they're actually just like us.
* The plotting.
The book jumps back and forth in time to some degree, incorporating flashbacks from the final moments before the end of Lucy's musical career.
Zarr incorporates these flashbacks well - slowly peeling back the background behind Lucy's decision to walk away from the piano, in an interesting, inquisitive manner. Because we don't get the story immediately, Lucy's depression and hesitation at getting back into the world of competitive playing, becomes all the more effective.
* The world building .
A lot of books take place in San Francisco, and Zarr does an excellent job of incorporating actual elements of the region into the book, to make it seem more authentic.
I loved the smaller details that she thought to include - e.g. the drive up to Half Moon Bay; the snarking about Daly City, etc. They really helped make the book feel authentically Northern California, verses someone who just looked up the city on a map, and added details accordingly.
The world of competitive piano:
As someone who used to play the piano herself, I know how complex the world of competitive piano playing can be. I also know that it's almost impossible to describe that world to someone who's not actively a part of it.
However, Zarr does an excellent job of adding enough detail and background in The Lucy Variations to make Lucy's world seem authentic, without drowning readers in unnecessary details. Her descriptions of musicians, composers, and the musical world, are so detailed and rich, I wouldn't be surprised if non-musical readers went looking up these musicians and musical arrangements out of curiosity.
* The relationship between Lucy and Will .
Okay, okay - I know that a lot of people thought the relationship between the two of them was gross. From a physical level, I absolutely agree. However, I've also seen this type of relationship play out in real life.
A younger, seeking girl becomes attracted to the wiser, older (and likely married) guy, because he's wise and seems to have the answers to the world's problems. Conversely. the older guy becomes attracted to the younger girl, because he likes the attention, and feels like he's reliving his youth to some degree.
It's not right, but it's a type of intellectual affair which *does* happen. So I applaud Zarr for being willing to take a risk, and write that type of attraction. She does a good job of balancing their motive and desire for each other, with the consistent feeling that yes - the relationship is wrong, and they are venturing into forbidden territory.
I was also impressed with Lucy's ability to suss out Will's external motives in the end, while also maintaining a degree of civility with him, for the benefit of the bigger picture. She has essentially used their "relationship" as a motivator to grow up.
Things that didn't work:
I may be in the minority here, but I felt like Zarr couldn't quite figure out the direction that she wanted the book to go, until the latter chapters.
In the earlier sections of the book, Lucy seems to just spend a lot of time being depressed by her life, drifting through interactions (and confrontations) with family and friends, and debating whether or not she wants to get near the piano again.
While Lucy's feeling of aimlessness and lack of purpose are true to a person suffering from depression, it's also not interesting to read. The reader, much like Lucy, ends up just feeling aimless and adrift in the chapters. As a result, I would say that we arguably end up caring far less about Lucy than we could, largely because we're not given a reason to want to cheer for her as we're getting to her.
The focus gets slightly better as Lucy begins to prepare for the showcase, but I think by then, it's too late to make that strong connection between Lucy and the reader.
Based on reviews from other readers, I have a feeling that the lack of an arc may have to do with...
* The writing.
This is my first Zarr book, so I don't a Zarr-specific frame of reference to judge The Lucy Variations by. However, it sounds like this is her first time using third person in her writing.
While her writing is still quite crisp, there was a noticeable lack of depth to her character's thoughts and interactions - which likely also influenced the arc.
Zarr's decision to incorporate a taboo relationship, intermixed in the world of competitive piano playing, makes a story that is alternately smart, touching and memorable. Despite some weaknesses in writing and plotting, I recommend this book for fans of Sarah Ockler, Sarah Dessen and Huntley Fitzpatrick.