Imagine that you’re 16 again. Life is as dramatic as ever, and the best is still to come, right? But what if you felt, at 16, that you’re already past your prime? Meet Lucy, of Sara Zarr’s The Lucy Variations.
A rising international piano star, Lucy decides to quit performing after the sudden death of her grandmother. No more traveling the world. No more being told she’s special. Lucy’s now facing what it’s like to be normal—much to the disapproval of her family. “I was interested in this idea of someone from a high-achieving family who’s somehow a disappointment or feeling like she’s a disappointment,” Zarr said of Lucy.
We’re introduced to Lucy a few months after her decision to quit, and it’s immediately clear that she’s struggling with her new life. She’s reflective of “the disenchantment that I think we all experience when we get [older], just about life in general,” Zarr says, who wondered “what kind of 16-year-old would be experiencing that disenchantment at such a young age.”
It was important that Lucy be an artistic character, since Zarr admits that Lucy’s struggles are connected to her relationship with writing. “I wanted her to be doing something creative that she had become disenchanted with…how I was feeling about writing after having a bunch of books in a short number of years,” she says.
How do you fall out of love with something? And how can you rekindle that love? For Lucy, she has to learn to listen to herself. “She’s been in the world of adults for a very long time,” Zarr says, and this affects her ability to define her place in this world.
It’s Will, a piano teacher, who helps Lucy redefine herself and see piano in a new light. For Zarr, the relationship between Will and Lucy was the hardest to “get.” Their dynamic is complicated, and what they have is not entirely innocent. But while their interactions might sometimes skirt the line of what’s deemed acceptable, Zarr is there to remind us that gray areas are what’s interesting.
“If you’re going to write contemporary realism, you have to look at the full spectrum of what it is to be a person. And that includes a lot of not being at our best,” she says. “That’s what makes me excited to write.” Lucy’s relationship with Will fuels her progress toward breaking free of expectations and finally being able to enjoy the music. Learning to do something just for you isn’t easy, and Zarr believably describes both the ugly and beautiful moments that are part of becoming a better person.
Chelsea Langford is the editorial assistant at Kirkus.