This Week’s Favorite: The Lucy Variations

"The Lucy Variations" by Sara Zarr

Put this on your reading list. Like, now.

Even occasional visitors to may be aware of the fact that I am a bit of a Sara Zarr fangirl. So when I heard–was it eight, nine months ago?–that she had a new title coming out this spring, I put in a request for a review copy IMMEDIATELY.

Unfortunately, due to the timing of the book’s arrival, I didn’t get to read it right away, and by the time I began, there was already a significant amount of chatter on Goodreads about how The Lucy Variations wasn’t living up to expectations, wasn’t as good as Zarr’s previous novels, etc. So while I started the novel with some trepidation, now that I’ve read it, I must begin with a resounding: I beg to differ.

I’ll say up front that The Lucy Variations is a difficult book to discuss without resorting to spoilers. In fact, my only real issue with this book is that I wasn’t totally sure how I felt about a particular relationship that develops toward the end of the story–one which had some questionable subtext, and which I felt ended up being a bit of a distraction from Lucy’s emotional journey.

But rather than talk around what I can’t really talk about–and what was the weakest aspect of the book anyway–let me focus on what I loved, I mean absolutely loved, about this story.

First, the POV. This was Zarr’s first time writing in third person, and though others have criticized this decision, in my opinion, third person was the perfect choice for Lucy’s story. Lucy is a 16-year-old former piano prodigy. When the book opens, she’s eight months past a decision to walk away from a competition (and her piano career)–a choice she initially attributes to her grandmother’s death, but which she comes to realize over the course of the story is something she actually did for herself. For Lucy, being in the constant thick of competition–with all the attendant pressure, expectations, and notoriety–had resulted in the loss of an essential element of her music-making: the joy. This book is really about her journey back to that joy. Which is to say that more so than all of Zarr’s other novels, The Lucy Variations is more about an existential journey than a literal one. In first person, such soul-searching (and, at times, navel-gazing) could have felt claustrophobic. Third person gave the story just enough room to breathe–just enough distance from Lucy that I could empathize with her without getting sucked into that typical pratfall of most YA lit written in the first person: the vortex of angst.

So The Lucy Variations is a book about reclaiming one’s joy as an artist, but it’s also a book about overcoming fear. Sara Zarr wrote a wonderful blog post on this topic, and it didn’t surprise me to discover that part of the writing of The Lucy Variations was Zarr’s own process of working through some personal and professional fears. When it comes to art, audience members and fans see only the freedom of creative expression–the end product, in all its glorious transcendence. But the flip side of transcendence and freedom is angst and mortal terror and fear-induced inertia. I loved that Lucy’s character had to work through this fear of failure, and the way the various people in her life, especially her domineering grandfather, acted as metaphors for the voices (both in our own heads, and in the crowd of critics) that would try to make us believe that it’s not even worth trying, that we’re better off giving up. Being female, and also having achieved success at a young age, Lucy is somewhat of a “good girl”–someone who wants to please, to get it right, to make the people she looks up to happy. Her realization that she can shut out all these voices, that she can turn off this need to please, that she can stand up to fear in any of its forms, is one of the well-earned payoffs of this story, and an exquisite moment.

What else can I say about this week’s favorite? That I also loved the complex relationships between the characters? (I did.) That I loved that Lucy was a flawed protagonist, whose journey required more than a few course corrections? (Yes, I loved that, too.) Mostly, I loved this book for its emotional resonance–quintessential Sara Zarr in that regard. But there was also an emotional depth to The Lucy Variations that I hadn’t encountered before in Zarr’s writing. A depth that was new and beautiful, and yes, fearless.

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