Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

I am without doubt the worst person alive to leave comments on this particular book.  (Or at least one of the worst people.)  I bring too much personal life experience to the table to read a fictional tale about a classical pianist's teenage years with an objective nature added to which I'm kinda in love with Sara Zarr.

I'll try to be good.  Or 'nice' or something…

The library copy I read has been censored for profanity by a previous reader who apparently found some of Zarr's language inappropriate.  While it's sad that someone would take a felt tip pen and thoroughly blot out words in a book that isn't theirs, filling in the blanks did make for fun reading.  Every now and then reading a sentence was like reading some of those letters that Yossarian had to edit while not-injured and dodging the war.  "My dad bought me this for the museum fund-raiser.  Kinda            don't you think?"  I'm guessing Zarr, went with 'slutty' but given the freedom to interpret that which had been scratched out, I went with 'whoretastic.'

I read this book in about two hours; that's how much I liked it, but I had to indulge a lot more than an occasional scratched out word.  Lucy is sixteen years old and has just recently walked away from the life of a brilliant, classical pianist: traveling to competitions, concert engagements, recordings, and being pimped out by her grandfather to achieve a dream that he has long nursed for someone in his family.  After being betrayed by her family over a not-so-insignificant-matter she, wants to be 'normal.'  Go to school, have friends, not have her life dictated and planned out for her, to not have to wonder if she even likes playing the piano or if it's just the way her life has always been and she knows nothing else.

All of my problems with Lucy are from my life's experience and I couldn't really picture her in the game to the extent that Zarr wanted her to be.  It felt to me Zarr had done surface level research in what is a far more esoteric world than she ever imagined.  While Lucy's story and situation were certainly plausible she never came close to passing the eye test in terms of being a classical musician at her stated age, and more specifically, ability level.

There was a mention of Lucy going to a piano and adjusting the pedals.  The pedals are fixed and can't be adjusted in any way.  Perhaps she meant the piano bench.  There was a moment when Lucy is in a mini cooper with her two best friends--who aren't musicians--and she plays classical music.  I've only driven a mini once (it was an absurd amount of fun) and it was really loud.  Not the car for listening to classical music in.  Furthermore, if you put on classical music in a car with other people who have no time for classical music you essentially get beat up about it.  There is no arguing this last bit.  Lucy has quit playing the piano; hasn't touched it in eight months then on two weeks noticed puts together a Brahms sonata she hasn't played before for a performance only to--spur of the moment--play something else.  On no planet does this happen.  Ever.  Both Lucy and her little brother Gus who has taken up where she left off, don't really practice enough.  Practicing becomes compulsive: hearing Gus stress about his hour a day for the level of performance he was supposedly at was laughable.  Her family is super rich and they have a rebuilt European grand from the eighteen hundreds.  Modern pianos happened around the 1910's-20's when Steinway and Chickering finally got things so right that everyone else adapted what they were doing.  Her family would have eschewed the history of her great Uncle's piano in light of a Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Grotrian or Steinway.  Finally--kinda--Will, Gus' teacher, doesn't really teach.  What was said during lessons was unlike any lesson or masterclass I've ever taken part in.

There was some drunk piano playing as well.  Unless, you learn to play the piano or any instrument while drunk, called a conditioned learning response (like me with bowling) you will suck donkey balls at playing the piano when drunk.  Elio's drunken moment in Call me by Your Name was far more accurate in terms of playing while under the influence.  (But then again, that book was perfect...)  Zarr also doesn't talk about music in a way that pianist do.  If you just heard someone play, afterwards you may say, "I loved our Liszt!"  But if you're talking to other pianists, no one would ever say, "I'm playing a Chopin nocturne."  Because everyone's next question would be, "Which one?"  You state key and opus immediately after you say Chopin nocturne; all of this hurt believably.  My last musical gripe (promise!) is Lucy at sixteen playing the Mendelssohn d minor.  It's not a matter of difficulty, but why would she choose that piece?  Not the violin concerto but the piano one.  Because at that age, unless you've played every other concerto there is you're not gonna pick Mendelssohn d minor.  This bothered me so much I called some grad school friends for their response as well.  Both of these friends are also piano performance majors.

What Jennifer said.  "No I haven't played that.  Why would I?  Maybe if I'm recording both just to get it out of the way for posterity's sake.  Why would anyone play that?"

What Jay said.  "You mean the violin concerto?"
"No, piano concerto in d minor.  Mendelssohn."
"There's a d minor piano concerto?"

Granted, I think Jay was joking but even that joke proves my point.

My musical complaints aren't only because I think I know the subject matter better than the author, rather how she presents the material puts some serious dings in Lucy's credibility.  It was these issues that held me back from buying into the story.

Music aside, the most difficult points to swallow was her relationship with her family.  She falls out of favor with her family, especially her Grandfather, as she gives up on piano.  But I never found any tangible complaint to justify their continued hardship.  I couldn't imagine her family not supporting her decision to stop playing.  Furthermore, her parents damn near neglect her.  She is a spoiled rich kid sure, but the degree to which they don't keep tabs on this girl stretched belief.  Added to which the options for a sixteen year girl to get in trouble in San Francisco after discovering freedom after being chained to a piano for twelve years was more than I could take.

My eyes rolled a lot.  And that has never happened to me in a book by Sara Zarr.

The story is about Lucy's longing to play again only not in the manner or extent to which she previously played.  Will, Gus' teacher, coaxes and prods and is a wangus in general .  Will's relationship with Lucy felt very, very real.  I don't know how she couldn't come to see that he was an asshat.
Zarr's strong points are what she is always good at doing.  Her depiction of Lucy's family, their wealth, and San Francisco are all so clear with such minimal, almost accidental, effort is phenomenal.  I still love Zarr's voice.  I still wish she'd write about something other than a teenage girl fighting an intangible anxiety.  Musical deficiencies aside, it's a hard book for me to talk about as I'm so biased toward liking Zarr that I'm inclined to forgive a pretty weak to insubstantial plot tension just because the book was fun and easy to read.

Please do read Sara Zarr!  But start here, or maybe, here.

1 comment:

Wallflower said...

"An hour a day?" I was terrible at piano lessons as a kid and even I had to practice half an hour a day. One hour is a joke.