It’s safe to say that readers of all ages would benefit from pondering the big-picture questions Sara Zarr explores in The Lucy Variations: Are you obligated to “use” your talent, or is it all right to simply enjoy it? And what do you do when someone you love makes decisions you abhor?
Thanks to a family that pushes her toward achievement to the exclusion of all else, at age 13 piano prodigy Lucy Beck-Moreau found herself at a crossroads: She could keep buying into the compete-at-all-costs ethos, or just . . . quit. No more competition, no more pressure, no more piano. But after so many years of playing, a life devoid of piano isn’t one she can sustain.
That’s where Zarr introduces us to Lucy: She’s 16 now, a pariah in her own home with plenty of free time to explore her San Francisco hometown, make non-pianist friends and contemplate a future that’s no longer preordained. It’s a revelation to Lucy that there are options beyond the ones she’s been spoon-fed. Flashbacks to her 13th year reveal the circumstances that led her to quit, and in Zarr’s skillful hands, Lucy’s growing awareness becomes a delicious inevitability, as well as an object lesson for readers who aren’t quite comfortable living a life of supposed-tos but don’t know how to make changes.
Zarr herself grew up in a musical family; her parents were both accomplished musicians, and Zarr played clarinet through high school. But her parents never pushed her toward a career in music. In a phone call from Salt Lake City, where she lives with her husband and pet parakeet, she explains, “Lucy’s family couldn’t be more different from mine in that way. My mom was not ambitious, though she is extremely smart and talented. My late father lost his career as a musician and college professor because of his drinking. . . . There was a lot of pain around that. And my mom was just trying to survive. No one pressured me to do anything, and there was never any talk about what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
For a teenage piano prodigy, there is joy when the music stops.
Fortunately for fans of her work—four previous novels, including her debut, 2007 National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl—Zarr found her way to the writing career she believes she was meant to have. Now, with The Lucy Variations, Zarr says she wanted to try new things.
“It was a very different experience to write about a family so driven by tangible success and appearances. Usually I write close-to-middle-class or struggling-middle-class kinds of stories,” she explains. Creating characters with different concerns was a challenge the author welcomed. Also on Zarr’s to-do list: creating a story “about a relationship between a teen girl and an older man that wasn’t about abuse.” She’s done so with Lucy and Will, the charismatic young piano teacher who’s hired to teach Lucy’s younger brother Gus. Will, with his unapologetic appreciation of the beauty in life, becomes a catalyst for Lucy’s new outlook.
Zarr is aware that Lucy and Will’s relationship might make some readers uncomfortable, but she knows from experience that such friendships can be wonderful. “When I was a teen, I got involved in community theater and had a life in the world of adults in my own way. I felt like, I have a place in this world, people like me and respect me, expect me to do a good job, and treat me like an equal. That was really great for me, because I didn’t feel accepted and respected with my peers in that way.”
She adds, “Obviously there’s a line where it is something terrible, and people should be concerned, but there’s a whole range of appropriate behavior and gray area. . . . There is so much fear around it, and I don’t think it’s necessary.”
Ultimately, facing fear in its many forms is at the heart of The Lucy Variations. Because of Lucy’s crisis-induced life changes, her family and friends experience uncertainty, too. Some of them are unwilling to stray from their expected paths; after all, change and choices can be scary, especially when the people around you want to maintain the status quo.
Not unlike her protagonist, the author says she’s thinking about a change in her life. “This is my midlife crisis disguised in this book about Lucy,” Zarr says with a laugh. “I’m definitely at the point of burnout. . . . I intentionally got to the point where I don’t have any pending things that I owe anyone, and I’ll be in that space for a while before I do whatever I’m going to do next.”
Before her hiatus began, Zarr did co-write a novel with Tara Altebrando: Roomies, due out in the fall. “It felt super-easy and fun—it was a complete delight,” she says. And despite her plans to take some time off, Zarr also feels that her writerly life so far has been delightful: “My whole career has been a big surprise—I’m really grateful. . . . It’s a great place to be.” Her readers certainly hope it’s a place she’ll return to when the time is right.