Review: The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr

Show of hands in the comments: Who played an instrument in their youth? What instrument and for how long? Why’d you start, and if you quit, why’d you quit and do you miss it?

I had piano lessons for part of middle and high school. My second-grade teacher, who was really primarily a music teacher, came to my house once a week and taught me and Social Sister how to play. I was okay. I have big hands, so that was good, but I never had a really good feel for the way the music flows. If I were wealthy, I’d probably buy a piano and take it up again, but it would be, like, a slightly shabby upright piano. Anything fancier would hastily out-fancy my ability to play.

The Lucy Variations (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is about a girl whose ability to play cannot be outfancied by even the fanciest of grand pianos. Lucy Beck-Moreau is the scion of a piano playing legacy, her grandfather’s great hope. By the time she’s a teenager, she’s won more major piano-playing contests than you can shake a stick at, and there seems to be nothing that can stop her musical career. Until she walks away from her piano at a competition in Prague and never plays another note.

Eight months later, her little brother, Gustav, has become the flagship of the family. When his piano teacher dies in their living room, the family has to hire a new teacher: a man called Will who becomes the first person ever to ask Lucy, What do you love?, and to remind her that she once played music for love, not for obligation.

I am very torn on The Lucy Variations! On one hand, I was completely engaged when I was reading it; I wanted to get back to it when I was away. On the other hand, there were a lot of times when I could not tell what Sara Zarr’s attitude toward her characters was, and what my own attitude toward them was supposed to be. For instance, Lucy is a dreadful friend. Just awful. She has two main friends, Carson and Reyna, and she regularly asks more of them than she gives. Although they each bring this up to her in the course of the book, and she does not seem to think it is false, it doesn’t engender in her any sense of obligation.

Or another thing: The book does not seem to acknowledge the genuine harm that Will does to Lucy by failing to set appropriate boundaries. I know Sara Zarr knows what the appropriate boundaries are, because Lucy’s English teacher more or less sets them. Will does not; it is shitty. I was uncomfortable with Will from the get-go. It’s established early on that Lucy looks older than her age, and I never liked Will’s way of singling her out and making her something more than a student’s sister, or even a student herself. The book doesn’t give him a pass on all fronts, but I think it gives him too much of a pass on this front.

Or another thing again: Lucy’s social strangeness is pretty obvious as you’re reading the book. The idea is that Lucy’s music required a schedule that a regular school would not have permitted; so she had tutors for a great deal of her career. She’s more comfortable with grown-ups than with kids her own age, and she has a habit of developing crushes on men who are much older. I’d have loved Lucy’s process of self-discovery—which focuses almost exclusively on whether and how she wants to approach music going forward—to include some changes on the social strangeness front. That would have been an interesting plotline, right? How to figure out social norms when they haven’t been bred in you beforehand? But no, there’s really none of that.

This is one of those reviews that came out much more negative than my actual experience of reading the book. I liked reading it! I think Sara Zarr is a tremendous YA author who should be more famous than she currently is. However, The Lucy Variations is not her greatest success with character consistency and so forth.

Here then is the now-definitive ranking of Sara Zarr’s books, from worst to best. I will revise as needed when she writes more books in the future. Coauthored books don’t count; that is a whole other thing.

  1. Story of a Girl
  2. Once Was Lost / What We Lost
  3. The Lucy Variations
  4. Sweethearts
  5. How to Save a Life

This holds true whether or not you account for the fact that Once Was Lost turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as regards missing white girls. So there you go. If you want to love Sara Zarr, start with Sweethearts or How to Save a Life, but do be aware that you’re starting with the best ones, and the other books won’t be quite that awesome.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: American cover wins because it has an actual piano on it, and I like the title font slightly better.

19 thoughts on “Review: The Lucy Variations, Sara Zarr”

  1. I used to play the piano, I started when I was six and continued for about eleven years and yet I was awful, awful, because I never practised enough. Oh, and I didn’t have any real talent. Ahem. But practice might have at least given me the satisfaction of being able to play something proficiently. I think I miss playing it, but actually I miss the fantasy of sitting at the piano with music pouring forth from my hands like Lucy in the film of ‘A Room with a View’, and that was never ever the reality. And all these years later, I have no more self-discipline than I did then, and less free time. Also, no space.

    Your review is very interesting, I like the way you hold authors to account for not what their characters do or think but how to interpret that.

    1. I practiced loads when I played piano, but I still wasn’t very good. I was fine at it? But I didn’t have the musical feeling at all — I could never look at the piece and hear in my head what it was supposed to sound like. I liked playing though. I would like to own a piano — not a fancy one (the one we had as a kid was a borrowed baby grand), but a little shabby upright one that wouldn’t write checks my playing ability can’t cash. :p

  2. Ooh la, another Sara Zarr book! I do love her covers quite a bit. And I remember this book in particular when it came out, because of the cover.

    1. Yeah, me too. Did you feel like the book let Will too much off the hook for that? Because I SURE did.

  3. I used to have music lessons when I was a kid and I was just awful, terribly awful. I suspect I might have been better had I learnt a piano instead of a veena (a violin-like stringed instrument) that constantly cut my fingers.

    I haven’t read any of her books and I am not very fond of books about prodigies, but reading your review made me remember another book called Night Film which had a similar setup for the story (piano playing young girl who stops playing suddenly) and I liked that one very much. I guess it was because of the mystery/thriller aspect.

    1. Oh lord, I played violin for a hot second in elementary school. My parents spent all the money to rent a violin for me, and I was terrible, and my practicing tortured everybody. Piano is a much better instrument — if you’re bad at it, it doesn’t sound like a screaming ghost.

  4. Jenny! Night Film! Marisha Pessl!

    The Boundary Thing is enough to make my love for a book decline about 55%. I find it’s a thing with many of Madeleine L’Engle’s teenage heroines and older male mentors, especially in her early novels, and I hate it.

    I did not get piano lessons, but I wanted them very, very much. I am sure I would have been terrible, but I wanted to try. You were better than you thought; you just needed more time.

  5. I played the oboe for three years in middle school! I quit because I was far too busy being an angsty teenager in high school to be in the band. Bad decision on my part, as members of marching band (you can’t march with an oboe, but you can carry a flag or twirl a flag or something) didn’t have to take gym class. I did. Booooo.

  6. I played piano throughout my childhood and into college. I don’t play very much now despite the fact that I have a shabby upright now that I got technically for free, but have since paid to move it twice – so there’s the hidden cost. I also need to get it tuned one of these days. It’s starting to sound pretty bad in spots and that’s hardly encouragement for playing it.

    What is it with YA books and their protagonists being terrible friends (and not fully owning up to that)? I keep coming across that whenever I read YA.

  7. Lovely review. You managed to elucidate my thoughts on it really well. I liked reading it, but everything I came up with to say about it was negative.

    I enjoyed checking out your rankings. I’ve read every Sara Zarr’s book too. Here’s how I’d rank them:

    1. Once Was Lost
    2. How To Save a Life
    3. Story of a Girl
    4. The Lucy Variations
    5. Sweethearts

  8. Like others have mentioned, the boundary thing makes me very uneasy. Otherwise, it sounds very interesting, and I like that you included your ranking and that Jessica did, as well. I like seeing the differences in the way we all rank books.

  9. I agree mostly with your ranking of Zarr’s books, except that I haven’t read this one and I definitely liked Once Was Lost more than you did. I hope to read this one, but I need to wait a bit because I recently read Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, which is also about a music prodigy (this time a violinist), and it was definitely good. So I don’t want to compare the two.

  10. What a nice opportunity to de-lurk! I played piano for a bunch of years as a kid but never really liked it. So I stopped.

    My primary school was a cathedral choir school, which involved lots of singing. I still sing and like it very much, but only if I get along with the people I’m singing with. If I don’t, it can get uncomfortable at a physical level (singing has always be a very physical thing to me).

  11. I had twelve years of enforced piano lessons and had to practice an hour a day by the time I was in HS. I reacted to this by never touching a piano again after HS, except to tune my violin (which I still play, in the local symphony) or to pick out a melody line or something. I played trombone in the marching band in Jr High and High School. To get out of study hall, I took up alto clarinet and cello (I could sign out to go “practice” which meant hanging out in the band room). I can pretty much figure out how to begin playing anything. I have a chanter for a bagpipe and taught myself to play it, although I never got good enough to want to get hold of the bags.

  12. I’m a musician by trade and started studying violin when I was 8 and I still play just about every day (although sometimes I may pick up a guitar or mandolin instead). As a kid, I read every book about kid musicians I could get my hands on, but they’ve all been pretty forgettable. I remember loving one Madeleine L’Engle novel (for adults, I think– I was thinking it was Camilla, but when I looked it up just now, the description said it was about a girl who wanted to be an astronomer, not a musician, so I may have it muddled) but can no longer remember what it was called. And Bruce Brooks’ young adult novel Midnight Hour Encores I loved for its engagingly prickly narrator, cello prodigy Sibilance T. Spooner. I’m not sure either of them was really a good book. There’s something about writing about prodigies that seems to bring out the worst in writers. Prodigies tend to be used as plot devices so character development is nearly always poor or full of holes, because the whole concept of a prodigy in American imagination is so limited (I also research writings about child musical prodigies in late 19th and early 20th c. US, and I can tell you that this problem has been going on for a long time). I was not, by any means, a prodigy, but the musical detail almost always bothered me. Midnight Hour Encores rang more true to me than others (although I haven’t read it in years, so I can’t speak for its accuracy at this point) in a mechanical sort of way, but it fell down on the descriptions of the why — why do you do this to yourself? What do you get out of this kind of devotion to musical art? Madeleine L’Engle was sketchy about her musicians, but not about music — she still has (again, I no longer remember which book but I really need to track it down one of these days) one of the best descriptions of the experience of playing Bach that I’ve ever seen, about the way it can force your body an mind into a reassuring order.

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