The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

Quality of Prose: 3/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 3.5/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 3/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 2 days

A 1 Sentence Summary

Eight months after she gave up music entirely after her grandmother’s death, former pianist prodigy, Lucy Beck-Moreau, attempts to play again, without being pressured or controlled by her mother and grandfather and the musical legacy of her family.

My Favorite Quotes

“The world was full of beauty. She wanted to grab hold of it and take it all down into her bones. Yet always it seemed beyond her grasp. Sometimes only by a little, like now. The thinnest membrane. Usually, though, by miles. You couldn’t expect to be that kind of happy all the time. She knew that. But sometimes, you could. Sometimes, you should be allowed a tiny bit of joy that would stay with you for more than five minutes. That wasn’t too much to ask. To have a moment like this, and be able to hold onto it. To cross that membrane, and feel alive.”

“They listened and stayed face to face, and the moment was a window, inching up, and she went through it, his eyes pulling her along, seeing her, and seeing her, and seeing her.”


What I Loved About It

I always love books with musician protagonists. There’s always a musicality to the prose and a depth to the story that I always always love. The Lucy Variations is no exception to this rule.

It is a great and unique coming of age story. True, there are all of the typical coming of age tropes. But Zarr puts a spin on each of them. There’s a first love in this story, but it’s delicate and innocent and inappropriate and more similar to a crush or an infatuation than to actual love. There’s a main character struggling with who she is and what she wants for herself and her life, but the realizations she comes to and the lessons she learns over the course of the novel are not really what you’d expect.

I love Sara Zarr. I discovered her earlier this year when I read Gem & Dixie and it broke my heart and made me full-on weep on an airplane. This is only the second of her books I have read, but it certainly did not disappoint. She has a unique ability to pull on my heartstrings and make me invested in her characters. I also love that she focuses a lot more on family and friend relationships in her coming of age stories than she does on romantic relationships. Her books are definitely a fresh take on YA Coming of Age.

What My Students Could Learn From It

To be fair, there isn’t a ton in this book for kids to learn other than to be themselves and not always bow to the expectations of their parents, to figure out who they want to be and what they want for their own life independent of what their parents or grandparents want for them. This book also does an amazing job of portraying a teen who learns to love life and the world around her, and I think a lot of my students could do with a reminder that life is worth living.

Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Quality of Prose: 4.5/5

Quality of Story: 4/5

Quality of Characters: 4/5

Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 4.5/5

How Long It Took Me to Finish: 1 day

A 1 Sentence Summary

When Gem’s absentee father returns and stashes a backpack full of drug money in the bedroom she shares with her sister, Dixie, Gem wants to take the money and run–finally escape the impoverished, neglected life she’s always led—but she finds it’s not so easy to leave her little sister behind.

My Favorite Quotes

“We lied to ourselves as much as anyone lied to us. You have to, when you’re a kid, if you want to get through it.”

“I wanted a home that felt like home should feel. Safe. A place you go when you know there won’t be any bad surprises and you can be even more who you are, not less.”

“I sensed something like that same freedom, a space opening up inside me where I’d only felt smallness before.”

“I don’t know how or why right then–but I saw. I could belong in the world. There was space for me.”

gem and dix

What I Loved About It

This book though.

I cried like 5 different times while reading it. (And I read the entire book on a plane so it was one of those embarrassing, public book cries.) And I didn’t cry because of some huge dramatic and sad death or loss or something like that. I cried at the real pictures of the human–and, more specifically, the teenaged–experience Zarr depicts in this book. The teenage characters and the trials and realizations and experiences they have in this book are so unbelievably real. And, as a high school teacher reading a book about neglected teen sister runaways, the realness of this book really effected me.

The relationship Zarr depicts between the two titular characters is particularly moving. Never before have I seen a more accurate portrayal of the bond between siblings; they love each other deeply and yet can hurt each other more than anyone else can. Zarr perfectly explained this bond when she wrote Gem saying about Dixie, “She’s the only one who knows…what it’s like to be us.” Shared childhood experiences–good or bad–bond siblings in a way nothing else can, and Zarr does such a good job depicting that.

She also does such a good job depicting Gem and Dixie’s neglectful parents. They are bad parents, involved far more in their own lives and the drugs and relationships they depend on than they are in their children’s lives. They don’t take care of their children. Gem has always taken care of Dixie, but no one has ever taken care of Gem. And even though their parents absolutely suck, there are some good memories Gem has with them.  They have some redeeming qualities; they are neither totally bad or totally good. They are not villains. In fact, there are no villains in this book. Dixie can be cruel at times, their parents can be uncaring and even hateful, but none of these characters are irredeemable. There’s no black or white in Gem & Dixie. Just real actual life. And that’s refreshing for a young adult book.

Another reason I loved this book was that Gem is such a relatable character for me. She is isolated and has been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved. She is absolutely starved for love and attention. And she suffers from some serious social anxiety, which I (and many of my students) can wholeheartedly relate to. At one point Gem says, “I’d been in bed for an hour without falling asleep, going over my day and all the ways I had been weird at school.” Oh my goodness, no sentence has ever better explained my addled brain.

Despite all of the challenges Gem faces, she pushes through. She does what she needs to survive and to overcome and though all she wants is to flee from her own feelings of responsibility for her mom and sister, she postpones her plans to try and mend her broken relationship with her sister, to finally-even if only for one day-have that love and attention she’s always wanted. Man oh man the feels. So many feels.

What My Students Could Learn From It

Sara Zarr tells a heartbreaking story in Gem & Dixie. And yet it is—unfortunately—a commonplace one. As a teacher, this book especially moved me. How many of my students—how many of your students—have these same experiences? How many have neglectful parents? Parents who don’t make sure their kids have eaten? Who use them as pawns against their spouse or ex-spouse? Who have never taken them on a Ferris wheel or to the park? Who never buy them new clothes? Who don’t know where they are at any given time and who don’t ask? How many of my—and your—students don’t know how to ask for help? Don’t know who to ask for help? How many feel that their problems, their neglectful parents, aren’t bad enough to ask for help? How many feel they don’t deserve help? How many feel like they’re invisible—even to their own families? More than I, who came from a loving home with family vacations and rides on Ferris wheels and a home cooked meal every night, can ever imagine.

Clearly, this book is a must-read for teachers. But it’s also a must-read for our students. Many of my students could obviously relate to the plight of the main characters, and those that can’t could certainly learn a lot about problems that many less fortunate teens deal with.

Gem & Dixie has changed the way I view my students and will hopefully change the way I treat them and talk to them and teach them. And it’ll change you–and your students–too.