Book Review: The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

lucyvariations sara zarrFirst published on 28th July, 2013 in The Star 

YOU may know that one of my favourite books of all-time is Virginia Euwer Wolff’s The Mozart Season, and that I love reading all books about the performing arts (or any of the arts, really). Call it the wishful thinking of an adult who did not have the typical opportunities afforded most middle-class, urban Malaysian children, including music and/or ballet lessons.

The lives of young dancers and musicians fascinate me: The talent, the passion, the dedication, the discipline. The Mozart Season is about a young violinist, Allegra; and I have also reviewed here, Four Seasons, the story of Ally, a conflicted teenage pianist. Two years on, and we have Lucy Beck-Moreau, the 16-year-old protagonist of The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr.

Lucy is a beautiful young musician destined for greatness. She has a deep love for music, talent in spades, and a powerful, wealthy family who have made it their top priority (and her’s) to succeed as a concert pianist. But when she is 14, Lucy, realising that music was not enough to sustain her, let everyone down by walking away from her instrument during an important competition in Europe.

What followed was two years of musical abstinence. Called an “entitled little brat” by her angry and disgusted grandfather, and viewed with bafflement and disappointed by her mother (once also an aspiring concert pianist who didn’t quite make the grade and never forgave herself), Lucy feels unable to play, even “for fun”. Instead, she attempts to lead a normal teenage life, going to high school, getting reacquainted with her friends, crushing on her English teacher.

And then Will happens. Unlike in most YA novels, Will is not the boy who appears on the scene to shake things up, plant seeds of doubt in Lucy’s mind, or inspire her to change, move up, or out. Will is the piano teacher hired by her grandfather to coach Lucy’s younger brother, Gustave, on to whom the family’s hopes have been transferred.

Will is 30-something, awkward, geekily attractive, nice, and approachable. What’s most important is that, right from the moment he meets her, he challenges Lucy’s decision to stay away from music, and is ultimately, the catalyst that pulls her back to it.

Lucy develops feelings for Will that are much more than platonic, and I have to say, I found the “relationship” between them both repulsive and appealing. Well, let’s just say that Will is married, but nothing untoward happens. I wasn’t sure if I was convinced of this development (or non-development), but I do think it’s consistent as far as Lucy’s character goes. If Will had not turned out the way he does in the book, things might have taken a different turn. As it is, well, read the book and find out for yourself.

The main attraction here is Lucy herself. She’s gifted, wealthy, smart, beautiful and a decent human being who’s also an outstanding older sister. You might agree that she’s an entitled brat and should really count her blessings, but what she has is not the point of the novel, but what she lacks. It’s heartening and cheering to see Lucy get what’s owing her – basics really, like respect and self-respect, love, and support – and what she’s lost – trust, self-confidence, self-forgiveness. So, yes, she is entitled, but not a brat. She just deserves what we all do – a full life, to be happy, and the right to make our own choices.

Zarr’s portrait of teenhood with all its attendant challenges, anxieties, doubts and dubious joys, is one that will resonate with young readers who are struggling to fulfil dreams and aspirations that are not their own.  Might it also be a lesson to parents who believe that their children’s happiness isn’t too high a price to pay for their success?

A different take on the pressures faced by gifted teenagers is the focus of Gold Medal Summer by Donna Freitas. In this Young Adult novel, Joey Jordan is a gymnast who must choose between total dedication to the sport and regular teenage pursuits, like dating. What she chooses might be evident from the title, but I guess that depends on your view of what constitutes a successful summer. Still, the important thing is that it’s Joey herself who decides what to do. Perhaps she’s more single-minded and determined than most 14-year-olds but Freitas’ message is clear: Joey wouldn’t have been able to get from point A to B without the support of friends and family. That’s true in Lucy’s case too. Whatever decisions we make – right or wrong – we need to know we’ll be loved no matter the end result.

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