Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Lucy Variation by Sara Zarr

"In Lucy's house, childhood, like grief, was an episode merely tolerated.  An inconvenience and an obstacle to the real work of life;  proving to the world and to yourself that you weren't just taking up space."

The Lucy Variations explores some interesting ideas around art and competition.  Lucy Beck-Moreau is a gifted young pianist whose rich and cultured family place tremendous pressure on her not to waste her talent.  In the Beck-Moreau household, this means not just driving yourself towards ever-increasing artistic accomplishment, but also winning at performance competitions.  To Lucy's grandfather, the Beck-Moreau patriarch,  absolute discipline and commitment mean that Lucy is expected to perform at an international competition in Prague even though she has just learned that her beloved grandmother has died in her absence.  When Lucy walks off the stage, her grandfather is furious.  She is barred from playing ever again, and her young  brother Gus becomes the focus of the family legacy.

As the plot plays itself out,  Lucy defies her grandfather and begins to play again, privately, trying to re-connect to the joy of music. She also tries to protect Gus from carrying the weight of too much expectation.  This is a quiet book without a lot of incident, but the situation Lucy is placed in really drew me in.   Zarr's writing is elegant and nuanced, and her gift for complex characterization makes everyone in this book feel authentic and dimensional.  Lucy is a striking protagonist, very mature in some ways yet still clearly not an adult.  Lucy has to figure out what she has missed by dedicating herself to piano to the exclusion of all else, and she has to decide for herself what the responsibilities of being an artist might involve. For Lucy, the most compelling question is, does she still want to do it?   Does she still love it that much?

" The  metronome on top of the piano ticked steadily;  Lucy fought off the urge to throw a pillow at it...That sound.  Tick tick tick tick.  A slow adagio.  A death march.

She didn't know how Gus could stand it.  Spending day after day after day after lonely day in this room, with this old woman. 

Everything good (tick) is passing you by (tick) as you sit here (tick) and practice your life away (tick)."

Many of the adults around Lucy aren't very good at boundaries (neither is Lucy for that matter), and it takes Lucy a while to figure out whose support is disinterested, whose is not, and how much it matters.   I like what the Horn Book reviewer says about The Lucy Variations:  "the novel's strength is Zarr's unflinching attention to the gray areas of Lucy's life, where adults are fallible, decisions are reversible, and passions can guide you forward or lead you astray."  Like most of Zarr's work, The Lucy Variations is an absorbing book for thoughtful readers. 

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