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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Lucy Variations

The Lucy Variations - Sara Zarr
***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One sentence summary: a solid book about creative passion, but maybe not the most passionately or creatively written.
So The Lucy Variations is fine. It's even, I'd say, relatively solid. It's just...nothing special. I'm not sure what it adds to the whole body of YA literature, although I'm happy to see a protagonist who has an unusual talent and has been working at something hard her whole life. 
As an aside, I started A Corner of White today, and I find the language to be noticeably superior; it makes the prose in Lucy seem...ordinary.
The plot. Until Will and Lucy began having a more intimate relationship, the plot was a series of "I got up and I had breakfast, I avoided my controlling grandfather and mother, I was late for English, I crushed on Mr. Charles, and I got coffee on the way home." Ho hum. There's also the mantra of: "I should have been there when my grandmother died, but grandpa lied to me, and grandma and I had an amazing relationship, so this destroyed my trust in my family with respect to my career." 
Why the older men? After Will enters the picture, you start to wonder what the meaning of Lucy's intimacies with older men is. Perhaps Zarr wanted us to think that these are the new-adult male figures who believe in her as a person, who support her but don't (at least at first glance) push her selfishly, in contrast to her grandfather. She idolizes them because they're anti-grandpa. But it doesn't quite work perfectly that way. What was the emotional meaning, for instance, of Mr. Charles drawing the line finally, sending her out of his classroom when she's late again? Why does Mr. Charles just fizzle away as a force in her life and a character in the book? And is it believable, or just a narrative trope, that Lucy successfully pulls away from a man like Will who reveals that he loves her in the end? We're meant to understand that she's finally standing up for herself--that she knows she should only do things that she wants to do, not satisfy anyone else, and that by arranging to have important people at her Showcase, Will had violated the trust she placed in him to support that goal. Her feelings about him have changed because she understands that she's responsible for her growth, not him. But any teen who has ever longed for an older man will tell you: it doesn't switch off as easily as Lucy manages it in the end. It doesn't matter that you know it will never happen, or even that he's wrong for you. (Mind you, Zarr pays lip service to how hard it will be, but the narrative device is definitely that she's able to resist because she has learned so much about herself.) I'm not a psychologist, but I feel like tendencies toward older men to satisfy some inner loss are often subconscious, not so easy to shake. 
Not testing your character. Did Zarr make it too easy on herself, giving Will the perfect wife? Aruna is beautiful and funny and smart. There's no chance that Lucy can have him. It all felt very safe. (Zarr even said in a blog post that she wanted to explore that kind of relationship without it being sordid.) I'm starting to notice authors making easy choices, and it turns out it's everywhere. (My obsession may have started with Code Name Verity.) I'd say the "easy" choices authors are making have less to do with trying to keep the the plot manageable, and more to do with not stretching the characters because the author is coddling them. I think Zarr gave Will Aruna because she didn't want Will to act on his feelings for Lucy. I also think Zarr made Lucy feel turned off by Will's betrayal in a way that negated the slightly dangerous, charged situation she had found herself in, which wasn't quite believable given how powerful the personal attraction was. Zarr made it all very tame, and simple, and as usual I wanted there to be a bigger mistake made, or at least have the ending be a little messier. (I recall now that I wanted even more with Vera Dietz...I wanted Vera to make a genuine sexual mistake with James.) 
Why third person narration? The Lucy Variations is told in nearly-first-person, but actually written in third, and I'm not sure why. If you think back on it from memory, you almost get confused about which one it was. Why did she choose to make it in third? Normally I like third-person a lot, but in this case the narrative was so exclusively from Lucy's point of view, I didn't understand the choice.
Underused supporting actors. The side characters of Raina and Carson were a bit wasted. Carson in particular seems to be there to show us that when Lucy's ready for a relationship, don't worry, there will be boys her age who are good choices. I did think her relationship with Gus was pretty well done, and it's nice to see a strong relationship between siblings. And I liked the way Lucy's mom became strong a the end, and stepped in to help Lucy defend her choices. The other adult figures were pretty unexplored. I had no sense of why grandpa was the way he was, other than "He was kinder and gentler when grandma was alive." The one chance he has to explain himself, he just says that he has given his life to music. There's nothing personal said about Lucy.
The presence of music in the book. I wanted music to be more of a daily part of everyone's life in that house. I feel like they would be the kind of wealthy, music-obsessed people who have speakers in the ceilings, with the stereo piped in to every room. Zarr did try to inject music where she could (in the car with Raina and Carson, while Lucy is studying, the mixed-tape for Will). But most of the choices were well know pieces and composers, and as with everything in this book, I could see Zarr laboring in her edits to carefully answer the issue of "music should be more pervasive." So yes, the music is there. But it's only "there." The music--and the novel--doesn't quite sing the way I hoped it would.