Polyphonist’s #CBR5 Review #24: The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

There are times when a book comes to you just at the right time. For me, this was one of those books. I happened to bring my niece to the library for storytime and after, while she played in the juvenille section, I took a look at the new YA offerings. As a singer and dancer, most images depicting music appeal to me, so the cover of The Lucy Variations, with a girl’s hand on a piano jumped out at me. Yes, I fully admit, I often judge books by their covers. And this one was really pretty and clearly had to do with music. It wasn’t until I read the synopsis that I realized it was also about so much more. Passion. Family pressure. Making choices that you don’t fully know the full scope of until after you’ve made them. Recovering from the aftermath of major life transitions. Waking yourself up to life again. The hunger for attention and the blurred lines we dance around to get it. Yes, this book was so much more than a a sixteen year old girl playing piano. But it does start there. Well…actually, it starts with the death of a piano teacher. Not a spoiler; it’s literally the first scene of the book.

In the opening pages, we’re introduced to Lucy Beck-Moreau, sixteen year old former piano prodigy, and her ten year old brother, Gustav…the up-and-coming piano prodigy. Lucy is trying to do CPR to her brother’s piano teacher and…well, fails. It’s theorized she had a stroke, and that there was “probably” nothing she could’ve done (Jeez, Mr. EMT. Couldja maybe have given her a little reassurance?). From there, Lucy and Gus’s family need to find Gus a new piano teacher that a) is available (duh), b) meets with their grandfather’s limited approval. The latter is actually what proves to be harder, since their grandfather’s musical opinions are harsh and not very inclusive. He’s an affluent codger who thinks performing is only valid if you’re the best or striving to be the best. Even at the expense of family. This type of pressure can get to anyone, especially children, and it’s revealed that Lucy walked away from her budding career less than a year earlier and had never touched a piano since. This garners the wrath of her grandfather and detached disapproval of her mother, making her family life a bit more strained than your average teenager.

Enter the new piano teacher, Will. A former prodigy himself, Will is now a working musician and piano teacher. A bit of a bohemian, Gus takes to Will immediately. Will recommends that Gus take breaks and play Wii sports to improve his brain functioning, as opposed to Madame Temnikova’s (see dead piano teacher, above) method of constant drilling and practice. Will also takes a shine to Lucy, especially when he hears she hasn’t played piano since she stopped months ago. He offers to be her friend and helps her rediscover what she wants, as opposed to what her family expects. He opens her up to “art. To music. To the joy of creation, and the wonder of beauty in all its forms.”

This message was one I very much needed to receive right now, as I’m struggling with finding a direction, reconnecting with my passion, and rekindling a joy for creation. Watching as Lucy develops an understandable crush on Will, and how that progresses, along with how Lucy interacts with her friends, favorite teacher at school, and her family, was all incredibly revealing and insightful to me. An exchange towards the end of the book perfectly captures Lucy’s grandfather’s hard-line approach to making music:

“If you can’t handle the pressure, you shouldn’t play.”

I was proud when Lucy shot back with, “Why?

Seriously, why? Why is it that being completely under control, being the “best” is the only marker for success? In my own life, I’ve suffered a bit from this type of negative self-talk and also had some from family members. One family member used to tell me that I was so good, I could be on Broadway. And while that may be true, if the right director, the right show, the right everything aligned, I also have to recognize a few things. First, I’m not a standard body type, which narrows my castability. Second, this is assuming I have not just the talent but the desire to do what it takes to be on Broadway. I read an article a few months ago about how much work it takes to be a working actor. The asscrack of dawn auditions and call times, the endless rejection, constantly trying to make yourself look and be someone else’s ideal, and so much more. That wasn’t the life I wanted. The benefits didn’t outweigh the detractions. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t act. It just means I more than likely shouldn’t make it my career. There are other ways to exercise that creative drive besides being the best of the best. Maybe some of them will involve money. They have in the past. And while it might be nice to be a star, I think it’s also important to have a life beyond that. Like Gus playing Wii games, or going to the new action movie with his dad over Thanksgiving break, Lucy going out with her friends, or to a party.

This book helped me reconnect with the importance of balance, of being true to yourself (as trite and cliched as it is), standing up for what you believe in, forgiveness, understanding other people and yourself in the process, the temptations and trappings of fame, and above all, “the joy of creation, and the wonder of beauty in all its forms.” I’m grateful to Sara Zarr for that, and for randomly happening upon books and judging them by their covers.

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