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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

My Writing Hero: Sara Zarr, a guest post by Angie Manfredi for Women’s History Month


March is Women’s History Month, so when I put the call out for guest bloggers (we love guest bloggers here at TLT, you can write one too), I was so excited that Angie excitedly answered that call wanting to write about Sara Zarr.  I read my first Sara Zarr book last year, Story of a Girl, discussed here by author Lisa Burstein.  Later, I reviewed How to Save a Life.  But this post is not about me, so read what Angie has to say about Sara Zarr.
These days it seems you can’t turn around without running into another young adult fantasy/dystopian/post-apocalyptic series or even stand-alone featuring a strong female heroine.  They’re wielding swords, leading rebellions, learning magic, saving lives – you name it.  And isn’t that fabulous?  Isn’t that fantastic? 

But it can be somewhat harder to find teen girls in contemporary fiction that have the same kind of realistic urgency to them.  They don’t often get the chance to save their societies from destruction or carry heavy weaponry across planets.  Yet their struggle to define themselves, to find out what their power in the world is, is just as important, and just as compelling. 

That’s one of the reasons I love Sara Zarr and her well-written and beautiful books: she writes contemporary young adult fiction about those teen girls – the ones you know from your

classrooms and your library, the ones you see at Starbucks and the movies on Saturday nights. She writes their stories and their lives in such a rich, full way that her books let those teen girls know that their stories have merit, their lives have worth, and that they are just as awesome as any fantasy world heroine.

Zarr’s four young adult novels (with a fifth set to be released in May) all have one thing in common: female characters of all ages, particularly teenagers, who are complicated and layered.  In What We Lost (originally published in 2009 as Once Was Lost) protagonist Samara wrestles with making her faith in God fit with the complications of the real world and Zarr shows how the struggle for grace can, in and of itself, be a blessing.  To this day my heart still aches when I think about Sweethearts (2008) and the beautiful story it tells about Jenna and Cameron, best friends and third-grade sweethearts, who meet again in high school as totally different people but find themselves still drawn to each other.  Jill and Mandy, two teenage girls with very different lives, are brought together by Mandy’s pregnancy in How to Save a Life (2011), truly one of the most honest and original young adult books I’ve ever read. 
But even though each one of these books is lyrical, well-crafted, and thoughtful my favorite Sara Zarr book is still her 2007 debut Story of a Girl.  In fact, Story of a Girl is one of my all-time favorite young adult novels.  I’d even go as far as to say it’s an essential young adult novel – one you must read if you want to understand the true power of the genre when done well. 

The girl in the story is Deanna who is sixteen now but still must live in the shadow of choices she made when she was thirteen.  Everyone thinks they know Deanna’s story but this novel is about Deanna deciding that, in the end, only she will determine the course of her life and the kind of person she wants to be. 

Story of a Girl is unblinkingly honest and unfailingly fierce.  It still amazes me that all the way back in 2007 a book this bold and frank about sex and what it can mean in teen’s lives was published.  Deanna is truly an unforgettable character and the way she comes into her own potential, her own huge capacity for forgiveness and change, her own power – well, if that’s not the essence of feminism I don’t know what is.  It is also, of course, the essence of the young adult journey into adulthood and Zarr captures that so fully here that I think this is a book that teens can easily see themselves in.  Story of a Girl, a finalist for the National Book Award, is a quick read but one that stays with the reader forever.  It’s a book for all those teenagers living life in the real world that you know and every day and it’s a book that tells them that everyone makes mistakes but life, real, adult life, is about being strong enough to start letting that go.  Six years later, this book is still a little masterpiece.

I’ve been lucky enough to read Zarr’s upcoming book The Lucy Variations and I’m happy to report it is Zarr at the top of her game.  Lucy is a former child prodigy who stopped playing piano after a serious life crisis.  Now sixteen, Lucy begins to wonder if she can find her way back to music. It’s another book with a strong female character who takes the world on her own terms and is creating her own path.  It’s also a great look at a character who is an artist, who cares deeply about creativity and self-expression even when it’s hard.

Sara Zarr is one of the most interesting and unique current young adult writers.  As of yet, no fantasy/dystopian/post-apocalyptic heroines wielding magic swords and riding dragons have showed up in her work.  (Not that it’d stop me from reading her work if they did). And yet the female characters she so expertly brings to life are just as bold, memorable, self-realized, and, yeah, bad-ass.  They are characters you need to meet and characters you need to share with your teen readers. 

(also worth checking out is Zarr’s This Creative Lifepodcast, a thoughtful and insightful series featuring great dialogue between Zarr and many talented writers and creators.)

Angie Manfredi is the Head of Youth Services for the Los Alamos County Library System.  She is a proud feminist who loves working with a young adult literature, a genre that celebrates strong female characters.  You can find her blogging sporadically at www.fatgirlreading.comand tweeting incessantly @misskubelik.