Allison's Book Bag

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Posted on: June 4, 2014

When The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr became available at our local library, it became my top pick to read during National Novel Writing Month. Since that time, I have purchased my own copy and it has become my turn-to book whenever I’m in the midst of an intense writing project.

Why? Foremost, when I’m struggling creatively, I want to read a book about which there is no question of whether I’ll like it. Sara Zarr has never disappointed. Just as important, the story is appropriate for a time when I desperately need inspiration. The Lucy Variations is about a sixteen-year-old who once had a promising future as a concert pianist, but walked away from it because of a betrayal and a death, and is now exploring why she even enjoyed piano in the first place. Having participated more than once in National Novel Writing Month, I know that the closer to the end of a writing project that I draw, the more I’ll begin to question my aspirations to become a published author. At times like these, I cling to advice Lucy receives: “…. And I think if you can remember what you care about, or at least remember how it felt to care about anything, well, it helps.”

Previous novels of Sara Zarr have contained a social issue at their core. Story of a Girl explores teen pregnancy, Sweethearts explores sexual abuse, Once Was Lost explores a kidnapping, and How To Save A Life explores adoption. Of course, anyone who has read anything by Sara Zarr knows that each of these descriptions is an understatement. Zarr’s books are all also about coming-of-age, issues of faith,  and complex relationships. In a way then, The Lucy Variations is a different type of book for Sara Zarr. Unless you count the stress of being gifted and living a privileged life, there aren’t any underlying social issues. In another way, The Lucy Variations is a typical Sara Zarr book due to its multiple layers, such as the many ways we face death and chose to live, crushes on teachers and mentors, and how joy is in the smallest moments.

The Lucy Variations differs in other ways too. It’s the first of Zarr’s book to be written in third person. This viewpoint allows Zarr to focus the story on Lucy while allowing readers enough distance to help them understand her behavior in ways Lucy herself cannot. It is also the first of Zarr’s books to feature a character who isn’t from an economically-disadvantaged family. Lucy is actually the exact opposite, but comes off just as real and sympathetic as Zarr’s previous characters. Finally, it’s the first of Zarr’s books to explore romance beyond the typical high school fare. Prodigy Lucy falls first for her English teacher, bringing him coffee cake as apologies for being late to his class, and later for her music mentor. The latter is perhaps more disturbing, because Will is clearly married. Even his wife at one point asks Lucy why she is calling her husband in the middle of the night. Lucy herself isn’t sure what she needs from Will, except perhaps attention from someone who might hold the answers to questions which have plagued her since walking away from her music career. You see, Will himself used to be a musical success, but now has a life which doesn’t revolve constantly around music even if it does involve it.

Zarr told Confirm Not Conform that The Lucy Variations has “mostly a metaphor for my own relationship with writing at the time I was working on that book”. In that context, one would expect Zarr to have written yet another novel about literary endeavors. After all, most authors seem to explore this part of their past at one point or another in their fiction. I appreciate that by bestowing Lucy with the gift of music, which required some research on Zarr’s part to make accurate, Zarr made The Lucy Variations instead about the universal theme of talent. As such, Lucy’s story lies less with what type of gift she has, and instead more with what it means to have a gift, to feel stifled by it, and then to rediscover it for fun. That’s a life lesson that most of us eventually have to wrestle with, which makes The Lucy Variations a prized keepsake.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

2 Responses to "The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr"

Thank you, Allison, for the loan of The Lucy Variations. I enjoyed both the plot and the accounts of Lucy’s relationships not only with her English teacher and her music mentor, which you referred to in your review, but also with her grandfather, her brother, and her best friend. Lacking special ability in anything, I didn’t identify with Lucy’s exploration of her interest in music as you did because of your writing ability. However like you I did appreciate the book’s emphasis on the importance of doing such things because of enjoying them rather than because of having to do them.

Thanks for your post! I also enjoyed how Lucy’s relationships were portrayed with her grandfather, her brother, and her best friend. In my mind, one of Sara Zarr’s strengths is her ability to create realistic and complex relationships.

I bought The Lucy Variations with me to give to Shekinah, who will graduate high school this year. Given that she is not only gifted, but is also talented in many creative fields, I’m hoping that she might relate and appreciate the book.

PS Congratulations Sis on your high school graduation!

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