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A teen in full: Sara Zarr's 'Lucy Variations'

Published June 24, 2013 6:50 pm

In a vivid portrait, a piano prodigy takes difficult steps toward self-determination.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Death has a way of concentrating the mind on what matters. For Lucy Beck-Moreau — the precocious protagonist of Sara Zarr's fifth foray into the young adult genre, The Lucy Variations — three deaths precipitate a breakthrough in self-awareness, which propels her toward adulthood.

The first passing, which causes the ripple that changes everything, is that of Lucy's beloved grandmother, to whom — inexcusably, as she sees it — she didn't get a chance to say goodbye. The second, that of her brother's piano teacher, leads to an auspicious encounter and then a friendship, which enables her to rekindle her love of piano, in spite of the designs of all the would-be managers in her life. The third, of a distant relative overseas, occasions a separation from her controlling mother and grandfather, which gives her just enough breathing room that she can resolve to assert herself.

When we meet Lucy, she is sixteen, and at a crossroads. She is deeply unsettled by having — eight months prior — abruptly ended her career as a piano prodigy. She has her reasons, which, although they feel valid, can't assuage her sense of guilt about disappointing the adults in her life.

The grooming she has undergone from a young age has made her different, a bit of an outsider, though by no means a rebel. She's comfortable with having just two close friends. Although she likes to please and to get recognition, she is not blind to the unsavory effects that can accompany both those tendencies. Since turning away from competition, she has been adjusting to a more traditional — if highly privileged — school life.

Upon meeting Lucy, we are thrust into a world of self-doubt, as her ingrained reflections on perfection are juxtaposed with her (unsuccessful) attempts to resuscitate her brother's piano teacher. Her internal struggle as she tries to do so is an early indication of the degree to which she has been trained to abhor failure and mediocrity. Her grandfather's and parents' insistence on excellence, with which she has had to contend for so long, haunts her.

What's engaging is how the tensions of the various relationships in Lucy's life are revealed: By the swiftness and clarity of the narrative, by dialogue that cascades naturally, with a certain inevitability, toward her self-styled emancipation.

We move along inside Lucy's head, where guilt, sweet teenage naiveté (mixed with the danger of crossing the line), conscience and the desire for assertiveness collide. She knows whom and what she cares for, but she needs to find a way to express it — to herself as well as to those closest to her — so that she can crack the shell and stretch her wings.

What resonates is the way Lucy recognizes and deals with the complexity of people's intentions, as well as her own. Her sense of morality does not push her toward self-righteousness or easy answers. As she moves toward making more mature decisions about her life, she doesn't let people off the hook. More importantly, she doesn't let herself off the hook, either. She acts, then looks back on her actions, knowing full well she's not infallible, even when she may be in the right.

Her romantic impulses trigger the requisite butterflies but also a healthy dose of confusion, as she's forced to confront how her crushes on two adults she looks up to (her English teacher and her brother's new piano instructor, Will) affect others, and what they mean.

As we watch the novel's major characters through their interactions with Lucy, their flaws and lived-in traits rankle — in large part because they seem impervious to new possibilities of seeing. But this is, paradoxically, also their golden quality, as it is evidence that Zarr won't let false awakenings occur.

What happens instead is that Lucy, by virtue of the sensitivity she has honed throughout her formative years, is impelled to accept people as they are. To love her grandmother all the more for having endured for so many decades with her grandfather. To appreciate him, despite his curmudgeonly aggressions and encroachments, despite his apparent lack of self-criticism, his excess of self-regard.

Lucy's apprehension of the power of the understated moment is exquisite. It isn't the main theme of Vivaldi's "Winter" concerto that floors her. Rather, her favorite part is just before the presumptive payoff arrives: "the microsecond between anticipation and full-born joy."

Call that the novel's ars poetica.

The coda satisfies because of its restraint. Lucy's instinctive decision to make her comeback performance her own ensures she betrays neither her sensibility nor the story's aspirations to realism. Even the overly neat, relationship-altering conversation with Will can be given a pass due to the fact that we see Lucy has grown. That we leave her knowing she is free to do what she has fought so hard for: To make her own choices and to change her mind.