The Lucy Variations (by Sara Zarr)

24 06 2013

variousszarrAfter reading How to Save a Life and especially Story of a Girl, I had really high expectations going into The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr’s 5th novel to date. I didn’t really know much about the book upfront, except that it was about music of some sort, and a girl’s passion. Oh, how I wish this had been The Great Sara Zarr novel… but for the cat, it just was a big letdown, one that I really didn’t expect.

Lucy is a child prodigy. Born into a (wealthy) family of musical importance, she performed on the biggest stages, won the most prestigious prizes, at a very early age, and was under constant pressure to perform and to be the best. But then after a tragic family event she walked out of a performance and hasn’t touched a piano since. Lucy’s grandfather – the family patriarch and despot  for all intents and purposes – sees her decision as failure and doesn’t even let her play the piano anymore deeming her no longer worthy. Instead, the family’s eyes are now on her younger brother Gus. When Gus’ piano teacher suddenly dies, a new (and much younger) teacher, Will, is hired to teach Gus. For Lucy, this is spark she needs to be tempted into playing the piano again. The question now is if/how to make this clear to her family, and whether she can just play for herself and for the music, and not for the attention it will give her (and her family), and whether she can withstand being under the pressure she previously felt (mostly from her family).

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.

I recently, read another book that dealt with a musical child prodigy, Virtuosity, and for the second time I feel like there’s something that was missing: 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 you’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. 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.

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