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Book Review: The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Since Angie Manfredi is talking about Sara Zarr today, I thought I would review The Lucy Variations.

Publishes May 7, 2013 by Little, Brown

Lucy Beck-Moreau was a world renowned pianist at a young age, and the pressure from her family to be the best was intense.  That’s why one day in Prague, she simply walked off the stage.  Not quite a year later, a new piano teacher named Will comes into the family for her brother Gus, and he challenges Lucy to think about what music means to her.  It seems such a simple question: What do you love?  But as in all of life, the answer is never that easy.  But Lucy things that one of the things she may be in love with is Will.

In true Sara Zarr style, The Lucy Variations is an exploration into the inner workings of a teenage girl, told with insight and flourishes of genius.  Where The Lucy Variations differs is in our main character.  Lucy is a child born into a family of privilege, where money isn’t really an issue and she has always had access to the best piano teachers and support for her passion that money could buy.  When she walks away, terms like “ungrateful” and “spoiled” are used.  But coming from this life of privilege also means that Lucy must really dive into self discovery and and gives her the opportunity to choose what she wants to do and who she wants to be in ways that many (most?) teens don’t have.

Lucy is an interesting character because she can be selfish and hard to sympathize with, but then you get insights into what the demands of her life were like and you can understand who she is and what she has struggled against.  Substitute sports, academics, or whatever parents are pressuring teens to succeed in and any teen reader will be able to relate to Lucy’s family life.

Zarr is a beautiful writer who can create the perfect phrasing to make us all stop a moment and not only think about the story, but to reflect on what it means in our own life.  When Lucy is asked “what do you love?”, you can’t help but take a moment and think about who you are and what you really love.

The most interesting thing that Zarr does, however, in this story is that of the character Will.  At first, he is a treasured mentor and friend who really shares wisdom with Lucy and encourages her on the path of real self-exploration.  But he also dances perilously close to crossing important boundaries.  And then in the end, there are some reveals that shed new light on their relationship and provide both new wounds and new opportunities for Lucy to take ownership of what music means to her personally.  This relationship between Will and Lucy is a delicate dance below the surface of the story that adds the tension that is lacking overall; it’s delicate and just ripples below the surface, but it provides insight into what is basically a very intense character piece.  What happens with Will is subtle but cuts to the core; he plays with crossing a line, more than one actually, and it could be shattering, but because Lucy is strong is not.

Lucy’s family is intact and very active in her life, and although there is tension that are in many ways a healthy, in tact family, which is always nice to see in YA lit.  There is a nice sibling relationship showcased.  And there are some nice friendships depicted with the characters of Reyna and Carson.

Different sections of our story are introduced with headings that relate to music terms, the terms of a movement in music, so you read Lucy’s story not only as a story in words, but in ways you can hear it flow in your mind as a piece of music.  It was a fascinating and moving flow that unites the story pieces.

If you are familiar with Zarr’s work, you know the plot is not the thing but the characters and emotion are, this is where Zarr excels.  There is some nice introspection here, though I do think it lacks the raw emotional intensity of some earlier works, in part because Lucy must first undergo an awakening of sorts.  But the idea of pressuring teens to be something they may not want to be is spot on and so very important.  Subtle, nuanced and empowering. 4 out of 5 stars. 

More Sara Zarr on TLT:
Why YA? Story of a Girl by Lisa Burstein
Book Review: How to Save a Life


  1. This is a topic that, in my opinion, has not been overdone. I know of An Na's Wait for Me, but I haven't read it. There are probably some others too, but I think this is a good topic for teens to read about. I'm sure Zarr does a great job. Can't wait to read this. Great review!

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