"In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart..."
Lucy Gayheart on Amazon
I rarely give myself the chance to reread old favorites, because the reading goals I set for myself in terms of new books are challenging enough. But this week, because I was on vacation, I picked up Willa Cather's ethereally tragic Lucy Gayheart, an old favorite from my early teens that I haven't read in at least five years.
The title character is, like many of Cather's heroines, a beautiful, fascinating girl from a small prairie town. Lucy is a talented pianist and the beloved younger daughter of a watchmaker, who sends her off to Chicago to study piano. Her third summer there, she is recruited as a substitute accompanist for famous, aging, burning-out singer Clement Sebastian, and romance kindles.
And Lucy is one of my favorite heroines of all time: she is so young, in the golden, desperate way that you just know can't last forever. I had that sense of tragedy when I last read it, but it was certainly easier to see now. She throws herself into everything, she dreams, she cares deeply, she is easily moved by small moments. On the first page, townspeople reminisce about Lucy Gayheart's way of walking through the snow, "not shrinking, but giving her body to the wind, as if she were catching step with it." Later, Lucy herself walks around on a cold night:
"...anyway, she was not afraid of the cold. She rather liked the excitement of winding a soft, light cloak abou ther bare arms and shoulders and running out into a glacial cold through which one could hear the hammer-strokes of the workmen who were thawing out switches down on the freight tracks with gasoline torches. The thing to do was to make an overcoat of the ocld; to feel one's self warm and awake at the heart of it, one's blood coursing unchilled in an air where roses froze instantly."
I always think of that passage when I have to walk around in the cold.
Lucy is a much more readable novel than My Antonia, the one so many of us had to read in high school. The third-person narration stays close to Lucy's point of view, except during sections when it draws close to her hometown suitor Harry Gordon or her bitter older sister Pauline. And it's short, at 195 pages. ...But it carries a lot of heft: the split of Lucy's heart between town and country, the chilling effect of Sebastian on her youth, the loneliness of city life and the crowding, caring intimacy of small-town life.
It's funny, I feel unqualified to write much about the novel because I've read it so many times, and my summary sounds like the trite sort of thing I'd dash off for an English class. This book is so familiar that it's like part of me, so hopefully the passage I quoted above recommends it more highly than this somewhat stilted post.
In summary: A favorite. Highly recommended.