Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

"She looked down at her hands on the keys, and they weren't hers anymore. What she did at the piano didn't belong to her. It hadn't for a long time. It didn't make her feel connected to herself or her family or the audience or the universe..."
Sixteen year old Lucy Beck-Moreau was a promising piano prodigy. Was. Until last year when she unexpectedly quit in the middle of an international piano competition in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

The Lucy Variations opens eight months later with the sudden death of the family's piano teacher, Madame Temnikova, in the family living room. Her death occurred in the middle of Lucy's brother, Gus' lesson, while he was playing a Chopin nocturne. Temnikova's death means that Lucy's parents and her Grandpa Beck, will have to find a new teacher. That new teacher turns out to be a young married man, Will R. Devi. Will has been brought in to help Gus who is to play in a "showcase" and then the prestigious (and fictional) Swanner competition in February.

In flashbacks, we learn that Lucy walked off the stage at the Prague competition after learning that her beloved Grandma Beck lay dying back in San Francisco and that her Grandpa was going to let her compete without telling her what was going on. Lucy never wanted to come to Prague while her grandmother was so sick. His concern for things over people, his iron control over Lucy and her music career finally pushed her to the brink. She chose to walk away, a decision, Grandpa Beck told her, that was final.

Since leaving the world of competitive classical music, Lucy has enrolled in Speare Academy where she excels in English and hangs out with her friends, Reyna Bauman, whose parents are going through a divorce, and Carson Lin, a Taiwanese-American who has a crush on Lucy. Lucy has been trying to fill her need for attention by spending extra time with her young English teacher, Mr. Charles, but when he begins to discipline her for being late for his class, Lucy also begins to realize this need she has will not be met by Mr. Charles.

Will's unorthodox methods of teaching Lucy's ten year old brother, Gus, begin to attract Lucy's attention. Will reaches out to Lucy encouraging her to remember what it is that she loves in an attempt to mentor her. Gradually Lucy comes to realize that she still loves music but that she didn't like not having control over her career or her life. Her grandfather's controlling behaviour stifled Lucy taking all the joy out of music. And her walking out of the Prague competition was never her decision to quit for good. That belonged to her grandfather.

Lucy finds her relationship with Will becomes complicated by her increasing infatuation with him. She struggles to keep her relationship within the correct boundaries, but Will appears to show that he understands the pressures she has faced, since he was once a music prodigy himself.  Lucy's best friend, Reyna, begins to recognize the dangerous ground Lucy is straying into and temporarily breaks off their friendship. Meanwhile her brother Gus believes she will steal Will away and their relationship also deteriorates.

If Lucy wants to return to her music career, she must find the strength to face down her grandfather and mend her relationship with her mother. She must also recognize her need for attention and what her relationship with Will truly means. Can Lucy discover what it is that she truly loves on her own terms?

Zarr has written a novel that will likely appeal to a limited audience - those teens who are involved in the world of music and therefore can appreciate the various issues and conflicts that are part of this world. However, the issues tackled in this novel will hopefully attract a wider readership. It's well known the pressures athletes and dancers experience, but less well known is the immense pressure many high level teen musicians must face as they struggle to please parents, teachers, and adjudicators, to cope with the stress of learning demanding repertoire and of performing in front of critical audiences. Lucy's crisis is not one that most teens will easily identify with as the question Lucy must struggle with deals with her life and what she wants out of it. Many young people probably don't face this question until they are older - in their twenties at least. But Lucy has to answer this question now, because she has a wonderful talent that she either chooses to continue to develop or leaves behind for something else.

Written in the third person, The Lucy Variations asks readers to consider the issue of quitting which is generally seen by most people to be an act of failure. This theme particularly resonated with me because as I've gotten older and hopefully wiser, I've come to realize that quitting is not necessarily equal to failure. Sometimes, the right choice is TO quit. To stop and choose to do something else. It is also an issue many music students and their parents face; are they good enough to continue on to university or a conservatory where the stakes are higher? But tied in with this question are many others that musicians must ask themselves; why do we play music? does a person have to play perfectly to be appreciated?  At the crux of Lucy's dilemma is the question: Is this what I want for my life or is this what my parents want for me? It's a dilemma many gifted children, not just musicians, must eventually answer, early in their teens.

Lucy's Grandpa Beck embodies some of the traditional views to these questions. When Lucy and  her grandparents attend a concert by Leon Fleisher, who was a child prodigy,  her grandfather's reaction to the concert is very typical of many involved in the world of classical music. Fleisher lost the use of his right hand in the 1960's and instead of retiring (as many thought he should) found ways to integrate his disability into his career, developing a repertoire that used only his left hand. (Fleisher regained the use of his right hand in the early 21st century and continues to perform and conduct.) The concert they attend sees Fleisher perform with both hands, with Grandpa Beck listening for missing or wrong notes. The result of course, is that Grandpa Beck misses the beauty of the music and what Fleisher is trying to communicate to his audience. Yet the fact that he does have an emotional response to Fleisher's performance, suggests that Fleisher did in fact communicate something to him despite the missed note!

Another theme in this novel is the role of family in the lives of teens. Supportive families that allow young people the opportunity to have some input into decisions that affect them, lead to personal fulfillment and maturity. However, in Lucy's situation, the adults making all the decisions leads to her feeling resentment and losing her love of music and what it means to her. In fact, it is my experience that many children who show great promise as musicians end up quitting once they reach their teens because their love of music has been quite literally destroyed by overbearing adults.

The only aspect of this novel that I didn't quite like was Lucy's infatuation with Will. I'm glad Zarr did not develop this further, that she had Lucy realize what Will's motivations were. Zarr uses Will to bring out the realization in Lucy that she is seeking affirmation and attention and that music provides this for her. Will, who wasn't able to make it as a concert pianist (and therefore is considered a failure by Lucy's grandfather) but is a successful teacher, appears to act as a mentor, something Grandpa Beck perhaps once was but no longer is. Will hopes to draw Lucy back to performing, however, his own unresolved issues end up influencing his actions and Lucy sees the same old patterns of control beginning again. In this way, Will is a somewhat disappointing character.

Lucy was a well drawn character whose internal conflict we are allowed to share through the third person point of view. Usually third person narrative is difficult because we aren't privy to how other characters in a novel view situations. Zarr attempts a work-around by having Lucy "parrot" the views of her grandfather with whom she has a deep-rooted conflict. She also must demonstrate how others feel through their actions, such as Gus' anger with Lucy being demonstrated by his ignoring her.

Overall, The Lucy Variations is a well written novel that provides an interesting and enlightening look into the world of competitive classical music. The themes of family conflict and personal crisis make this a novel that may also attract the interest of those who don't have a connection to the world of music.

Book Details:
The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
New York: Little, Brown & Company     2013
304 pp.

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