Friday, January 11, 2013


  Sara Zarr's YA novel, THE LUCY VARIATIONS, due out from Little, Brown in May, is a different kind of novel. This is fitting, because Lucy Beck-Moreau is a different kind of protagonist: a 16-year-old recovering piano prodigy who has spent the last eight months learning, for the first time she can remember, to navigate a life not framed by music.
     Lucy is acutely aware of both the privileges and constraints into which she was born. Carrying her Italian leather messenger bag, she attends the "second-best" private high school in San Francisco; hunting through her closet for something to wear to a party, she comes across a forgotten sweater her mother had bought for her, still sporting its $397 price tag. Her family lives in a house co-owned by her maternal (Beck) grandparents, the sources of the extended family's wealth. No visitor who enters their home for the first time can escape Grandpa Beck's bravado-laced tale of his $17,000 conducting baton.
     But Grandpa Beck is the architect of Lucy's cage, as well as of its gilding. After we read a detailed description of the history of the Becks' heirloom baby grand piano, Lucy's mother's childhood is encapsulated in one chilling sentence: "Grandpa Beck, as the only child, inherited [the piano] the same year Lucy's mother was born, and determined that she would play."  It is only too easy to imagine what happened years ago in that young girl's life when she proved unequal to the task of becoming a concert pianist.
     But, unlike her mother, Lucy was born with the gift. Six years later, so was Lucy's brother, Gustav.  And there was never any question that each of them would be propelled through the ranks until they achieved their rightful places at the pinnacle of classical performance. The only problem, as far as Lucy could see, was herself - her own growing doubts that this was the life she wanted. She had been able to tamp down those doubts with fair success, until that day eight months ago, in Prague, that changed everything.
     After I finished reading LUCY, I turned to Andrew Solomon's FAR FROM THE TREE, a meticulous study of families in which a child turns out radically different in some way from his or her parents. I had flipped through that book earlier and seen that one of his chapters is entitled "Prodigies," with his focus on the musical variety. Solomon discusses a number of case studies before providing this assessment:

          Two distinct kinds of young people are grouped under the 'prodigy' rubric: the
          driven, single-minded baby virtuoso, and the youth who loves music in his bones
          and therefore has a better shot at a sustained career. The latter kids are more
          broadly intelligent, curious, often articulate, and possessed of a sense of humor
          and perspective about themselves. They pursue some semblance of normal
          sociability during adolescence and end up going to college instead of conser-
          vatory. Being pragmatic, smart, poised, and healthy is in their makeup, just as
          their musical enthusiasm and aptitude are.

     Lucy inhabits Solomon's second category. Looking back on her life as a musician, she says: "Time, that was the main thing. Years of it. Aka: her childhood. Gone." Yet she's been able to adapt to returning to a regular school after years of having been tutored so that she could travel on the international concert circuit, and to reconnect with her best friend Reyna, and to attempt to imagine a future for herself other than the only one that had ever seemed possible. With help, she's even able to approach the puzzle of how to reintroduce the music she loves into her life without getting back onto the hamster wheel.
     But damage has been done. Child musical prodigies, as Solomon poignantly observes, "need to mitigate the loneliness of having their primary emotional relationship with an inanimate object." Ironically, although the focus of their lives is their ability to perform on a stage, the prodigious children of ambitious parents "suffer from not being seen; their sorrow is organized not so much around the rigor of practicing as around invisibility." Lucy knows that her family loves her, but she also knows that, once the piano has been removed from the equation, they have no idea how to see her.
     As level-headed as Lucy is, she manifests the loss of her childhood in one particular, potentially dangerous way. Having for so long associated primarily with adults rather than with her peers, Lucy does not seem to be able to form attachments to boys her age. Instead, she develops serial, deeply felt crushes on older men, one of whom happens to be Gustav's new (married) piano teacher.
     THE LUCY VARIATIONS is a beautiful book. The action is minimal, but the themes are biggies: love, loss, empathy, trust, and the courage to move forward. There are some holes that I wish had been filled in. The biggest one, for me, is that there is no mention at all of the relationship between Lucy's father, the only nonmusical member of the family, and the domineering and often contemptuous Grandpa Beck. We never see them exchange a word. How have these two men managed to coexist for all these years without erupting into a fullblown turf war? Has Lucy's father just accepted being marginalized in his own home, or has he somehow earned Grandpa Beck's grudging respect? I find the situation fascinating in its potential for explosiveness, and I wish the author had chosen to give us at least a few hints (aside from Lucy's father having acquired an office downtown just to get out of the house once in a while) as to what choices these men have made in order to survive.
     This is, of course, just a small quibble. THE LUCY VARIATIONS is a convincing and moving portrayal of an unusual young woman in whom teen readers will nonetheless recognize themselves.
     And - I almost forgot! - it comes with a bonus CD of the music Lucy loves: rock, classical, some of everything! When was the last time you got a terrific book AND a free CD? Right: never!


  1. I just saw Andrew Solomon talking about his book last week on TV. Fascinating! I need to take a look at Lucy. It sounds good!

  2. Hey Cupcake! As is my wont, I'm not reading FAR FROM THE TREE straight through, but in dribs and drabs. But yes, it's intense and fascinating. LUCY doen't come out until May but you can pre-order it, so you can have something to look forward to! Thanks for checking in.