Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain.
That was all before she turned fourteen.
Now, at sixteen, it's over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano on her own terms. But when you're used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?
National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr takes readers inside one girl's struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. To find joy again, even when things don't go according to plan. Because life isn't a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.
About the Author
Sara Zarr was raised in San Francisco, California, and now lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is the author of How to Save a Life, What We Lost, Sweethearts, and the National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl.
Read an Excerpt
The Lucy Variations
By Sara Zarr
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Sara Zarr
All rights reserved.
Try harder, Lucy.
Lucy stared down at Madame Temnikova's face.
Which seemed incredibly gray.
She put her hands over Temnikova's sternum again, and again hesitated.
Stage fright: an opportunity to prove herself or a chance to fail. Which was nothing new for her. It just hadn't been a life-or-death issue until now.
This isn't a performance. Do something.
But an actual dying person in the living room wasn't the same as a Red Cross dummy in the school gym. Lucy tried not to think about Temnikova's skin under her hands. Or the way, from the looks of things, that skin now encased only a body, no longer a soul.
Except the moment wasn't definite. More like Temnikova was not there and then there and then not there. Mostly not.
Gus, Lucy's ten-year-old brother, started to ask the question she didn't want to answer. "Is she ..."
"Call nine-one-one, Gus," she told him for the second time. He'd been motionless, mesmerized. Lucy kept her voice unwavering, though she felt like screaming. She didn't want to freak him out. Channeling her mother's dispassion and authority, she said, "Go do it right now."
Gus hurried across the room to the phone, and Lucy looked at the ceiling, trying to remember the steps in the Cardiac Chain of Survival—what went where and for how long. Where were her mother and grandfather, anyway? They were usually and annoyingly there, running the house and everything, everyone, in it like a Fortune 500 company.
The metronome on top of the piano ticked steadily; Lucy fought off the urge to throw a pillow at it. Instead she used it to time the chest compressions.
Tick tick tick tick.
A slow adagio. A death march.
She didn't know how Gus could stand it. Spending day after day after day after lonely day in this room, with this old woman.
Everything good (tick) is passing you by (tick) as you sit here (tick) and practice your life away (tick).
Except she did know, because she'd done it herself for more than eleven years. Not with Temnikova, but in this room. This house. These parents. This family history.
"My sister is doing that," Gus said into the phone. Then to Lucy, "They want you to try mouth-to-mouth."
When Lucy and Reyna signed up for the CPR workshop at school last spring, they'd assumed their future patients would be sexy, male, and under forty, an idea which now seemed obviously idiotic. Lucy swept her hair back over one shoulder and braced herself.
Their lips met. Lucy's breath filled Temnikova's lungs. They inflated and deflated, inflated and deflated. Nothing. She went back to the chest compressions.
Gus was speaking, but his voice seemed far away. The order of Lucy's actions felt wrong; the backs of her thighs cramped. She looked up at Gus, finally, and tried to read his face. Maybe her inadequacy was engraving permanent trauma onto his psyche. Twenty years from now, in therapy, he'd confide to some bearded middle-aged man that his problems all began when his sister let his piano teacher die right in front of him. Maybe she should have sent him out of the room.
Too late now.
"Tell them I think ... I'm pretty sure she's dead."
Gus held the phone out to Lucy. "You tell them." She stood and took it, wincing at the needles that shot through her sleeping left foot while Gus walked to the piano, stopped the metronome, and slid its metal pendulum into place.
The house seemed to exhale. Lucy gave the bad news to "them." After going over the details they needed, she hung up, and Gus asked, "Do we just leave her body here?"
Temnikova had dropped to the Persian rug, behind the piano bench, where she'd been standing and listening to Gus. Right in the middle of a Chopin nocturne.
"Yeah. They'll be here soon. Let's go ... somewhere else."
"I don't want her to be alone," he said, and sat in Grandpa Beck's armchair, a few feet away from Temnikova's head. She'd been coloring her short hair an unnatural dark red as long as Lucy's family had known her.
Lucy went to Gus and rested her hip against the chair. She should try her mom's cell, or her grandfather's, and her dad's office. Only she didn't want to. And the situation was no longer urgent, clearly.
One of the EMTs said it looked like a stroke, not a heart attack, and there was "probably" nothing Lucy could have done. He typed into his phone or radio or whatever it was while he talked.
Probably. It wasn't exactly a word of comfort.
While the other EMTs loaded Temnikova's body onto a gurney they'd parked in the foyer, the "probably" guy clipped his radio back onto his belt and checked off things on a form. Lucy gave her name and parents' names and the house phone number. He paused halfway down the page and rested his finger over one of the check boxes.
"You're over eighteen, right?"
"Really." He—small and wiry, maybe two inches shorter than Lucy—gave her a once-over. Their eyes didn't quite meet. "You look older."
She never knew what to say to that. Was it supposed to be a compliment? Maybe she didn't want to look older. Maybe she didn't even want to be sixteen. Twelve. Twelve had been a good age: going to the symphony with Grandma Beck in excessively fancy dresses, unembarrassed to hold her hand. Being light enough that her dad could carry her from the car to the front door on late nights. Shopping with her mother and not winding up in a fight every time.
"So I've been told," she said. He smiled. There should be some kind of rule against smiling in his job. She said, "Just another day for you, I guess."
"I wouldn't put it that way." He handed her a card. "I'll need to have one of your parents call this number as soon as they can. You said she's not a relative?"
His look turned into a stare that lingered somewhere between Lucy's neck and waist. She stood straighter, and he returned his attention to the clipboard. "She's my brother's piano teacher."
Lucy gestured to Gus, who'd been sitting on the stairs, his chin in his hands. He didn't appear traumatized. Bored, possibly. Or, knowing him, simply thinking. Maybe thinking about how if he'd been allowed to go to his school sleepover at the Academy of Sciences, like he wanted, this wouldn't even be happening. But, as usual, their parents and Temnikova had said no, reluctant to take any time away from his scheduled practice.
The EMT blew a breath through his thin lips. "That's rough. It happening right here, during a lesson."
Where else would it happen? Temnikova practically lived there, in the piano room. Gus wasn't your average ten-year-old, fumbling through "Clair de lune" and "London Bridge" while everyone who was forced to listen held back the eye rolls. He had a career. A following. Like Lucy used to have. And Zoya Temnikova had been working with him since he turned four, when Lucy's grandfather flew her to the States from Volgograd, set her up in an apartment down the street, and helped her become a legalized citizen.
Her dying at the piano made perfect sense.
Still, it was sad. She'd given her life to their family, and now it was over.
After the EMTs rolled the body out, Gus got up off the stairs and stood next to Lucy in the starkly hushed foyer. If he was upset about Temnikova, he didn't show it. When Lucy asked, "You okay, Gustav?" all he had to say about the death of the woman with whom he'd spent so much of his time over the last six years was:
"Mom's going to be pissed."
"She wasn't even that old." Lucy's mother, tall and straight-backed at the kitchen island, slapped a flank steak onto the cutting board.
"She was ancient," Lucy said, skulking in the serving pantry between the kitchen and the dining room. Her father had parked himself on a stool at the island, Gus next to him. The two of them created a handy buffer zone between Lucy and her mom. She'd already gotten in trouble for not calling either of her parents or Grandpa Beck—or even Martin, their housekeeper, who'd been off—until the EMTs left. Her defense, which her mother did not appreciate, was, "It's not like any of you could have brought her back to life."
Now her father said, "Lucy's right. She was at that age when you can go anytime."
"She had a dinosaur neck," Gus added.
"Gus," Lucy said. "A little respect?"
Lucy's dad took a swallow of his Old Fashioned while her mother whacked the steak with a mallet and Lucy felt the in-and-out of her own breath. Since Temnikova's exit, she'd become weirdly aware of her lungs, her heart, everything in her body that worked to keep her alive.
"Well, it's terrible timing," her mother said. She put a grill pan down on the stove top. While it heated she strode toward Lucy, who took a nervous step back, until she realized the actual object of her mother's displeasure was the calendar that hung just inside the pantry. "Seven weeks." She gave Lucy a hard look, pointing at the calendar. "Not even seven. Closer to six and a half."
The winter showcase at the symphony hall.
CPR isn't as easy as it looks on TV, Mom. "Gus'll be ready. He's ready now."
"Of course he's ready now." Her mother went back to the island and put the steak into the pan. Sizzle and smoke. "But he won't be ready in six weeks without anyone on him. How am I going to find someone at this time of year? With the holidays coming up."
"It's okay, Mom," Gus said. "I'll practice the same amount."
"It's a showcase, Kat." Lucy's dad turned his glass in his hand. "Not a competition. He'll do fine."
He must have forgotten that fine wasn't in their family's vocabulary. If you were a Beck-Moreau, and you got up on stage for any reason—showcase, competition, recital, or just to roll a piano stool into place—you'd better surpass fine by about a million miles.
Granted, that was more a Beck issue than a Moreau one.
"The Swanner isn't long after, and that is a competition. I'll send out e-mails tonight," her mother said. "After Grandpa gets home and I have a chance to talk to him about it. We'll find out who's available on such short notice. No one good, I'm sure."
Lucy ventured two steps into the kitchen, placing her body in front of the calendar. "Maybe Gus could take a little break. Some people do, you know. Some people believe it actually helps. And then he could—"
Her mother cut her off. "Lucy, I'm sorry, but you're not exactly the first person I'm going to turn to for advice about this."
"Kat ..." Lucy waited for her dad to say more than that. Perhaps even mount a minor defense on Lucy's behalf. But no. Of course not.
"Do you want me to set the table, Mom?" Gus asked.
"I'll help," Lucy said, and followed him into their large formal dining room. It took immense self-control to not ruffle his hair. She loved his curls; he didn't like anyone touching them.
"Set for four," their mother called after them. "Grandpa's meeting friends tonight."
Given how Grandma's death had gone down, it was no big surprise that Grandpa Beck hadn't canceled his plans and come running home upon hearing the news about Temnikova. No surprise, but still cold.
They laid out clean place mats and napkins, dinner plates, salad plates, dinner forks, salad forks, knives, spoons. No dessert stuff on weekdays. Wineglasses for their parents. Water goblets for everyone. Even without Grandpa Beck, even under the circumstances, they would conform to tradition. Generally, Lucy didn't mind. It would be nice, though, once in a while, to be the kind of family that on a crap day like this would order a pizza and eat it in the kitchen. Maybe even talk about the fact that it was kinda sad and awful that someone who mattered to them had died in their house that afternoon.
"Nice work, Gustav," Lucy said, double-checking the table. She rubbed a butter knife clean of water spots. Martin would never let an unclean knife leave the kitchen.
Gus rested his hands on the back of one of the dining chairs and nodded. Lucy went to stand beside him. She wasn't much of a crier, but, God. What a day. Temnikova was gone. Just ... gone. Like Grandma. Except Grandma was Grandma. So it was different. But Lucy hadn't been here for that, and now that she'd seen this death up close, she couldn't help but think about the one she'd missed.
She put her arm around Gus and leaned way down to rest her head on his shoulder. "Someday you'll be taller, and this won't be so awkward."
"Oh, is that why it's awkward?"
"Funny." She straightened up, the urge to cry gone. "I'm sorry I couldn't save her."
"You said that already. It's okay."
"Aren't you a little bit sad?" she asked.
"I don't know," Gus said. "Are you?"
"It makes me think of Grandma."
Gus nodded, and Lucy set her hand on his head for a few seconds until he squirmed out from under it and took his seat. He put his napkin on his lap, so mannered and adult. He'd never had a messy phase. He'd never been sent away from the table. He never got crazy. Their parents took it as something to be proud of. Lucy thought maybe it wasn't how a ten-year-old boy's life should look, and she wished he would get crazy once in a while. A sugar bender. A tantrum. Inappropriate jokes.
But in their house, childhood, like grief, was an episode merely tolerated. An inconvenience and an obstacle to the real work of life: proving to the world and to yourself that you weren't just taking up space.
She sat across from Gus and flapped her napkin out dramatically, to make him smile.
Maybe it was good he was such a perfect kid. It left her free to screw up for both of them.
A cocktail party at a hotel, eight months ago. Lucy, nervous and in a new dress; one she and her mother had picked out together and agreed on, back when they used to agree on at least some things. It was slightly more adult than the rest of Lucy's wardrobe. She was about to turn sixteen, and her mother didn't mind Lucy showing leg as long as the neckline stayed appropriate and the heel low. The dress—silver jersey with ruching that gathered at the left side of her waist—stopped midthigh. Lucy was supposed to be wearing tights.
But her mother wasn't there to check. She'd stayed home to take care of Grandma Beck, whose bad cold had suddenly become pneumonia. So Lucy's dad had come instead to Prague, for the festival. Grandpa Beck, too, of course, because he believed he had to be at everything. Later, Lucy didn't understand how he could have left his sick wife behind the way he did.
She was talking to two of the other pianists playing the festival but, unlike her, not competing: a guy from Tokyo and a girl from a European city Lucy didn't quite catch over the noise of the room, whose name was Liesel or Louisa or something. They were both older than she was by about ten years, both good enough English speakers to talk about the pieces they were playing, where else they'd traveled recently, and where they were going next.
"I think I'm doing Tanglewood this summer," Lucy told them.
It sounded impressive. Not that she wanted to go to Tanglewood. As she hadn't wanted to do so many of the things that filled her time: the concerts and festivals and recording sessions and competitions that took her around the world and caused her to miss such massive chunks of school that she wasn't officially enrolled anymore. Instead she worked with various tutors from USF. Marnie and cute Bennett and sometimes Allison.
She hadn't even wanted to come to the Prague, which only took fifteen pianists in her age group from around the world. Out of thousands of applicants, she'd made it. There'd been a party. Grandma Beck wouldn't let anyone else pick the flowers or the food. Lucy's dad bought her a white-gold necklace with an L pendant to congratulate her, and Gus got all caught up in imagining himself at the same festival one day. Grace Chang, her teacher, took Lucy out for a special dinner to strategize a repertoire.
The thing was, Lucy hadn't even applied.
Her mother had filled out the form and sent in the CD.
"I didn't want you to be disappointed if you didn't get in," her mom had said.
Right, Lucy had thought. More like you didn't want to give me the chance to say no.
Excerpted from The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr. Copyright © 2013 Sara Zarr. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Katelyn Hensel for Readers' Favorite This is a wonderful story. You can’t really help but be interested when the opening chapter is the death of a piano teacher on Lucy and Gus’s living room floor. What follows is a beautiful story of a girl growing up, and growing into the person that she is meant to be. Sara Zarr truly knows how to dive into the mind of a teenage girl. You may not like what exists in this particular teenager's heart or mind, but it is extremely realistic and shows off just what a wonderful writer Sara truly is. The recording was excellent. I’m a big fan of when authors narrate their own stories. They know exactly how they want things pronounced and exactly what kind of flow or tone that they want to inject into each scene. Another thing that was absolutely wonderful was the use of background music. In a story that dances like fingers on a piano, it was almost necessary to include classical music throughout the book. The music added a greatness to an already wonderful work. The main story line revolves around Lucy, a piano prodigy at 15, who leaves the stage forever (?) after the death of her grandmother and the traumatic events surrounding it. Fast forward eight months. Lucy's family, once supporting her in her own musical endeavors, have moved focus to her younger brother Gus. Lucy doesn't care, that means less pressure for her and the freedom to start thinking for herself. But Lucy didn't realize that she was giving it up forever, and now Gus's new piano teacher is encouraging her to follow her heart. She chooses to do so, for better or worse, and that is what makes The Lucy Variations one of the most special and meaningful Young Adult books that I have come across in ages.
I thought The Lucy Variations was very well written and conveyed a powerful story about the process of growing up. Not only did it have an interesting and attention holding plot but reading Lucy’s journey to be accepted and find balance reminded me to take time to be grateful. It focuses a lot on family relations but also the role of friendships and is portrayed in a way that the book’s lessons can be applied easily into the personal lives of those who read it. It made me evaluate the balance in my own life. Also, it gave me an interesting look into my own relationship to my mother as I could evaluate in what ways my personal relationship to my mother was similar and different to that of Lucy’s mother/daughter relationship. Above all it’s a book about healing and creating for one’s self, not an ideal world, but a world worth living in. I like that about it. It wasn’t full of impossible ideals but realistic outcomes that were still full of meaning and purpose. I had the wonderful opportunity of hearing Sara Zarr talk about her books before I picked up this book and really that is her purpose in writing her books – they are about healing. It was inspirational to hear her describe writing as a way to serve and help others, not simply to entertain them. I think this book completely lived up to this expectation that she set for it. I would definitely recommend it.
Lucy is a character that you can easily relate to. The style of writing pulls you in. This is a really fun read.
I liked Lucy Variations, but I will say that it is not quite what I expected. I did like that there was depth to the secondary characters and I saw a lot of different ways the story could have went, that ultimately I probably would have liked better. But I did like Lucy, I saw that she grew a lot and figured out how to stand up for herself, that her family couldn't dictate what she loves and what she can do. She went through some hard times to figure that out, but the journey was worth it in the end. Her best friend Reyna wasn't perfect, but I think it gives a good portrayal of what it really means to have a friend in high school, you will not always see eye to eye on every issue, and they might be annoying with their issues sometimes, but news flash, so are you. I also liked Carson. I think that there was a bit of build up there, and I wish that it would have went there romantically instead of going the bad choice route again, but I see the reasons why Ms. Zarr wrote it how she did. Family is a big issue in this one, and it is one of the main focuses besides music of course. They are not ideal in some aspects, but they are together, and they are willing to (eventually) learn from their mistakes, and work things out together. My favorite was the relationship with Lucy and Gus, her little brother. The protectiveness, loyalty, understanding and playfulness all drew me in and I wanted another scene with them. They bicker and ultimately have a big argument, but they still love each other, and at the end of the day are bro and sis. I also liked their dad, he wasn't traditional to speak of, and he is the only non-musical in the family, but he can also see things in a way that the others can't because it wasn't always a way of life for him. It was well paced and kept my attention, and although I did feel the ending was a little rushed, I liked where it ultimately went and the place it left Lucy in. The writing was powerful and it all tied together to make a beautifully crafted story. Even with my wishes for her to fall for a different character, I still can't deny the draw of the story as is, and how a romantic interest within reach could have really set her eyes of what she wants to do now with her life. Bottom Line: Like the concept and most of the execution, do wish it would have taken another path romantically.
Its amazing!!!! Touched my &hearts . I would give &infin ★ s if i could!!!
I loved it. I can kind of relate to Lucy since i play volleyball but i "quit" this past year and im gunna play next year
After reading How to Save a Life, I became a fan of Sara Zarr's writing. Sara Zarr writes contemporary novels, but they are usually more on the "realistic fiction" side. Lucy is not your typical teenager. She had her future all planned out as a professional pianist. She was home-schooled, a full time pianist, and there was extreme pressure on her. There was a certain incident that made Lucy want to leave it all behind. Now that the pressure isn't on her anymore, it's all on her younger brother, Gus. Sara Zarr portrayed a perfectionist family spot on. This book was more about the family pressure that many teenagers go through, instead of the romance in most contemporary novels.Lucy was a very interesting character to read about. A lot of teenagers who go through that stuff would probably be able to relate to her very well. I liked that she wasn't the type who would just let other be in control of what she wants to do. I liked how she took matters into her own hands, and that she made her own decision despite the consequences. One day, Gus's tutor suffers a heart attack and dies. Lucy's grandfather starts searching for a new one piano teacher, and that's when they decide to hire Will. Lucy then starts developing a relationship with him, and not that type of relationship, but more of that teacher/friend relationship with a cute teacher. There's not much to say about the story without spoiling it, but it just revolves around family problems and the pressure that some parents put on their children.Overall, The Lucy Variations took a different direction into contemporary novels. It was refreshing to read a book that is talking about family, rather that the typical romance. Though I have to admit, maybe adding a little bit romance would have been nice. Anyhow, I really enjoyed reading this, and would recommend it to anyone who would look past the "no romance" aspect of the book. Once again, Sara Zarr did not disappoint me, and I will definitely be looking forward to her next book.