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The Lucy Variations
By Sara Zarr
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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.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of Roomies
Reading Group Guide
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(IN ROBBED TIME)
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.
That was when Lucy still believed that rocking the boat was the worst thing a person could do, and it didn't even cross her mind to try to back out.
The guy from Tokyo leaned forward as if he had misheard her. "Tanglewood?"
"How old are you?"
He exchanged a glance with Liesel/Louisa, who said, "Wow."
Lucy hadn't meant to brag. It could be hard to find the line between sharing credentials in an effort to fit in and showing off. "It's just part of this new youth-spotlight thing they're going to try.…"
"Excuse me," Liesel/Louisa said, looking across the room as if she saw someone she had to go talk to.
Tokyo stayed. "Have you ever been to Japan?" He had long, shaggy hair, like a lot of the guy musicians had, to show the world they may be music nerds but they were rebel music nerds.
"Once. When I was, like, eight."
He started to reply when Grandpa Beck appeared at Lucy's elbow.
"Lucy, let me introduce you to someone." He took her arm and pulled her away from the conversation. She scanned the room for her dad and didn't see him. "Your father is up in our room. And don't get too friendly with the competition."
"They're not the competition."
"Everyone is the competition."
She shivered in the arctic climate of the hotel ballroom while her grandfather ferried her around and made her talk to everyone he thought important: an up-and-coming conductor, an international booking agent, a Grammy-winning producer of classical albums. Lucy smiled and nodded a lot, hearing about half of what was said.
They left the party. In the elevator to their suite, Grandpa Beck turned to her. "You did well in there, Lucy. I'm proud of you." His eyes were soft, and he touched her shoulder with real affection. "This is an important festival, and there's a buzz about you. They all know who you are."
She did like that part. Being somebody. Even if it meant certain people were jealous or thought she was too young to get the kind of attention she did.
Being a concert pianist didn't win her any special respect from the kids she'd been at school with. Even her best friend, Reyna, didn't know and wouldn't care that she could nail a Rachmaninoff allegro. But in places like this, she knew she mattered.
"How's Grandma?" she asked as they exited the elevator and walked over the hotel's ornate carpet.
"Let's call her. I want to say hi." And she wanted to hear Gus's voice, and ask her mom's advice about how to wear her hair for the main part of the competition.
He pulled back the sleeve of his suit jacket to check his watch. "It's complicated with the time difference. We don't want to interrupt her rest."
Before leaving for Prague, Lucy'd gone into her grandmother's room to say good-bye, but she'd been asleep. Lucy had stared for a few minutes at her face: powdered and tweezed but also naturally beautiful. The face of a woman who was kind without being a pushover. Someone who'd managed to live with Grandpa Beck for more than fifty years without killing him.
"I don't want to go," Lucy had whispered, hoping Grandma would open her eyes and say she didn't have to.
Her mother had heard. "You're just nervous," she'd said softly, joining her on the edge of Grandma's bed.
Lucy had turned to her. Maybe there, in that quiet space, the afternoon light filtering through the gauzy curtains, dust motes in the beams and only the sound of Grandma's breathing, her mother would listen. "I'm not nervous. I feel like I should stay here."
"You have to go, honey. It's the Prague."
Lucy had looked back at her grandmother. "Isn't this a family emergency?"
"Grandma's going to be fine. And you won't do her any good by not going."
Lying awake in the Prague hotel room, Lucy had the sense that something wasn't right.
Her parents hadn't given her cell international access. She got out of bed and went into the suite's living room, in search of her father's phone. He was asleep on the pull-out sofa bed; Grandpa Beck's room had two kings, but he wasn't sharing. She found the phone and crept back to her room, got under the covers, and called her mom.
"Marc, it must be the middle of the night there," her mother said as an answer.
"I want to talk to Grandma."
A pause. "You can't right now, honey. I'm sorry."
"We're actually at the hospital," her mother said. "She's okay," she added quickly, "but she's resisting the antibiotics a little bit. And just needs some help breathing. She's fine, Lucy. It's all routine for someone her age."
"Does Grandpa know?"
Why hadn't he said something? "Is Gus with you?" she asked her mother.
"No, there's no reason for him to be. Because everything is all right. You just concentrate on your job over there."
"She's really okay?" Is there a tube in her throat? Does it hurt?
"Tell Gus I say hi. And tell Grandma I love her."
"I will. Get some sleep."
Lucy hung up and realized she'd forgotten to ask her mom about how she should wear her hair.
Lucy heard Gus coming up the stairs that connected her room in the attic to the third floor, where his was, and knew she'd overslept. Again. Her mother thought she did it on purpose, as if she sat around twenty-four hours a day thinking up Ways to Piss Off Mom. The truth was simple: She stayed up too late. All the time.
She scrambled out of bed, and by the time Gus came in had on school khakis and sneakers plus the sweatshirt she'd slept in. "Give me two minutes." She dug through a pile in her walk-in closet, in search of a sweater. Or maybe not a sweater. Maybe a polo. "What's it like out?"
Gus went to one of the little windows under the eaves and squeakily twisted open the blind. "It looks… beige."
Sweater. Lucy finished dressing in the closet, grabbed her book bag and a hair clip, and followed Gus downstairs. She kept him between her and her mother, who stood waiting in the foyer, in the exact spot recently occupied by Temnikova's body on a gurney. Lucy almost said something about it: They covered her face. The wheels got caught on the entry table. I had to move it a few inches to the left, see?
But her mother already had her hand on the doorknob; no time to acknowledge death.
"I'm not even going to say it, Lucy."
"You could leave without me, you know."
"Sure. Then you could skip school entirely."
Her mother walked out, and Lucy said to Gus, "When we get in the car, ask if we can stop for coffee."
"You ask her."
It was one thing to live on an average of four hours of sleep a night; quite another to do it without caffeine. She'd have to make a dash for CC's after her mom dropped her off.
Outside the house a gust of wind blew up the hill, carrying the smell of some bacony breakfast cooking nearby—maybe at one of the restaurants on Union Street. Last year she and Allison would sometimes have their tutoring sessions at Rose's or Ella's; Rose's for the smoked-salmon breakfast pizza, Ella's for the chicken hash.
Lucy's stomach growled. Chalk one up in the "pro" column for being a semifamous pianist: leisurely breakfasts. After a few years off of a normal school schedule, and only recently back on, she didn't get why first period had to be so early.
Gus sat in the front seat, and Lucy brushed her hair and put it back in the clip.
At the intersection at the bottom of the hill, she allowed herself one red light's worth of guilt. Being late so often actually was kind of rude, she knew that. But she had to be careful with guilt. Once she went off that edge, the downward slide might never stop.
It would start with feeling bad for being the kind of person who made people wait and for not showing her mom more basic courtesy. That would lead to guilt over not being grateful for the life she had and for not making good use of her privilege. Grandpa Beck had a lot to say about Making Good Use of Privilege; it was the family religion. Then there was what happened in Prague after all that time and money spent. Or invested. Thrown away? However you wanted to put it.
Time and money her parents would never get back. That Lucy would never get back.
Time, that was the main thing. Years of it.
Aka: her childhood. Gone.
But what was the point of going there? Nothing could be done about it. Except maybe for Gus, who now bore the sole responsibility for achieving something really special in the family name. All that pressure, a weight they used to share, was his alone, thanks to her. Which brought her back to…
So she tried to stop herself at mild remorse over hitting the snooze button a few too many times.
When they pulled up to Gus's school, the other kids were already going inside.
"Hurry," their mother said. "I'm sorry Lucy couldn't be on time."
Lucy leaned her head on the seat back and sighed.
- "An elegant novel...Zarr vividly develops the title character, illuminating Lucy's teenage insecurities, her close and fractious friendships and the coming-of-age realization that she can pursue her dreams on her own terms...A rewarding journey for readers."—The New York Times Book Review
- "This book has so much depth and character that it stays with you like actual memories. I love how Sara Zarr can make you laugh and cry on the same page, and I think this is her best book yet."—James Dashner, New York Times bestselling author of The Maze Runner (Metro New York)
- * "[Zarr] really, truly gets inside her characters' minds and shows us what makes them complex human beings -- their faults, fears, and hopes...This is a mellifluous novel about rekindling joy -- in music, in the everyday, and in the beauty around us."—Booklist, starred review
- * "Zarr doesn't waste a word in this superb study of a young musical prodigy trying to reclaim her life....[Lucy is] a deeply real and sympathetic character, and that dimensionality extends to the rest of the cast. The pressures Lucy is under feels powerful, immediate, and true -- her journey of self-discovery will strike a profound chord with readers."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- * "The combination of sympathetic main character and unusual social and cultural world makes this satisfying coming-of-age story stand out."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
- * "Exploring relationships is where Zarr soars . . . This strong coming-of-age story about music, passion, and the search for identity will appeal to longtime fans of Zarr's work and newcomers alike."—SLJ, starred review
- "A satisfying coming-of-age story and a thoughtful treatise on art, identity, and personal fulfillment."—The Horn Book
- "[A] gripping YA novel about a 16-year-old music prodigy trying to survive the cutthroat world of piano competitions."—InStyle
- On Sale
- May 27, 2014
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers