Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather

This is quite simply one of the most breathtakingly beautiful, yet hauntingly melancholic, novels that I’ve ever read. Its first lines speak of tragedy to come, and this knowledge hovers ominously throughout the novel until the inevitable blow arrives. It is a short, but incredibly powerful piece of writing about the boundless hope and joy of youth; about the endless belief in possibility, of the wonderful dreams and passions and delights a young heart can hold, and how the realities of life can crush and destroy that heart, stealing upon the lively, optimistic spirit of youth like a thief in the night and plunging the golden horizon of a life yet to be lived into the darkness of despair and hopelessness. It shows how much humans can hurt one another, how love can starve as well as nourish, how disappointment can break even the strongest of spirits. There is a creeping sadness that seeps into the very pages of this novel, and as much as I was blown away by the beauty of the writing, I was saddened to my core by the story of the eponymous Lucy Gayheart, a beautiful, lovely and loved girl from small town Nebraska, who walks with the lightness of a summer breeze and has a heart that is alive with the buoyancy of youth. A keen musician, she leaves the town where she grew up to go to Chicago to study, and there she falls in love with Clement Sebastian, an opera singer she plays the accompaniment for.

Suddenly, the life she left behind appears impossibly dull compared with the magic she has found in Chicago. The meaning she finds in her life has shifted; she wants nothing more than to spend time with Clement, and to be part of the hustle and bustle of city life. She thrives away from Nebraska; she has seen the fullness of life and nothing else she could ever go back to, no one else she could ever fall in love with, could compare to what she has now experienced. Her dreams and hopes for the future are bound up in her love for Clement, and the joy she takes in playing the piano for him. When tragedy strikes, and a misunderstanding ruins the only other chance she could have taken to find a way to happiness, Lucy returns home to Nebraska to find a way of life that holds nothing but emptiness, despair and quiet desperation, that only gets worse every day. Her family; her scatty father, and bitter older sister, don’t understand what has happened to her, and can’t make her happy. Everyone in town notices that the vibrancy Lucy used to exude has gone, and rumours abound about her. The one person she wants to be befriended by is unable, due to his impossible love for her, unbeknownst to Lucy, to give her the one lifeline she so desperately needs. At just 22, Lucy can’t imagine that her life could go on to bring her anything but more pain. She has lost the will to live.

This sounds horrendously miserable, but somehow it’s not. Cather’s writing is sparse and beautiful; every sentence is perfectly constructed and she brings her characters breathtakingly, heartbreakingly, alive. I could identify so much with this novel; I am only slightly older than Lucy Gayheart, and I can understand the disappointments that deliver such painful blows to youthful, hopeful hearts that are too naive to believe that life won’t always reflect the wonderful dreams that have blossomed in our souls from childhood. Lucy was not strong enough to start again; her will was broken by the first disillusionment she received. Thankfully most are made more resilient, but the quiet desperation she labours under, trapped and stifled by a life that she dreamed of being so much more, is definitely something I have felt frequently as I have begun the long and painful process of growing up.

I can’t recommend this highly enough; it has to be the most truthful and touching portrayal of how a young heart can be broken I have ever read, and in its bleakness, it manages to still be so beautifully written that I didn’t close the pages with a sense of tragedy, but instead, with a sense of life’s potential, of awe at the skill of Willa Cather, and an eagerness to read more of her as soon as I possibly can.

Also, I will add that I found the actual book itself stunningly beautiful; it’s a first American edition I picked up in a charity shop years ago. The pages are hand cut, the paper is thick and slightly ribbed; the typeface is lovely, very art deco, and so easy to read, and it just feels so solid, well made and considered from a design perspective. The book as an object has had as much attention devoted to it as the story it encloses, and this appears to be the same for all the other Cathers I own; as usual, I have acquired many of her books over the years and yet managed, until a few days ago, to not read any of them. It just goes to show what treasure you can have sitting undiscovered on your shelves. Speaking of which, I am currently devouring my very first L M Montgomery which has been gathering dust on the TBR pile; The Blue Castle. What a stunningly beautiful novel this is turning out to be! Review forthcoming!

p.s. You may be seeing less of me for a little while…my laptop has inexplicably died and while I wait for it to be fixed/save up for a new one/have my dad find me a spare one my internet access will be limited to work and borrowing my flatmates’ laptops when they aren’t using them, which is going to make it difficult to post as regularly as I would like. Please bear with me!

22 comments

  1. This sounds wonderful. I only discovered Cather myself a month or so ago through my VVV challenge.I look forward to hearing about the Blue Castle, and hope that your laptop turns out not to be terminally ill!

  2. I love Cather, but have not heard of this title! How appropriate that you've published the review on Cather's birthday. (I just got read piece of info in The Writer's Almanac – a daily email newsletter).

  3. I have a couple of Cather's most popular novels, but like you, I have not yet read them. With glowing review, however, how can I not help but put Lucy Gayheart at the top of the TBR list!I hope the laptop situation is remedied soon. I think your reviews are beautifully written!

  4. What a lovely copy. Clearly, you shop at much classier charity shops than I go to! Now go and look at your shelves and see if you have The Professor's House sitting there neglected and unloved – much as I loved Lucy Gayheart, I think The Professor's House is even better!

  5. Wonderful review. I discovered Cather this year myself and would like to read more of her work. This looks like a good one!

  6. I like the way you describe the writing, sounds like just my kind of book attracted as I am to the despair/hope of young American women at the mo.

  7. Your review makes this sound wonderful. Like yourself, I have quite a collection of Cather's books but haven't read any yet. I obviously should change that.Glad to hear you're enjoying The Blue Castle, I'm quite envious of someone who can read Montgomery for the first time.

  8. I haven't read any of Cather yet, but this sounds really interesting. I'm going to keep an eye out for her books now. The more VMCs I read about, the more of them I want to read! Best of luck with the laptop-fixing/replacing. Hope you manage to sort it out soon.

  9. I'm glad you're enjoying The Blue Castle! It is my very favorite of Montgomery's books – can't wait to see your review!

  10. I'm a huge Cather fan, but haven't heard of this book at all. Which is wonderful, because now I have a new one to look forwards to! I'm sorry about your laptop woes. I hope the problem is solved very soon, and I'm glad you have The Blue Castle to keep you company in the meantime. It's one of my favorite Montgomery's!

  11. Wow, this review has completely sold me on this book!The Blue Castle is an old favourite (and worthy of re-reading during difficult periods like laptop troubles!). It's outrageously satisfying – everything you want to happen, happens.

  12. Such a lovely book…inside and out! I've read a handful of reviews of stories by this author but never encountered her myself. This book sounds like an irresistible place to start.

  13. What a lovely review. I've never read any Cather yet, but I so want to get a copy of it now I have just read what you said about it!

  14. Oh this does sound like something quite extraordinary. What a lovely copy to get from a charity shop, I am most envious. Mind you if I had seen it in a charity shop I would probably not have picked it up as hadnt heard of it before.

  15. Verity – It is! And sadly not reprinted by Virago but you can easily get second hand copies. Laptop appears to have revived…and Blue Castle review should be coming today I hope!JoAnn – What a coincidence! I am going to be checking out that newsletter now!Molly – thank you so much! I'm glad you like my reviews, and I hope you love Lucy Gayheart as much as me!Anon – Isn't it beautiful? I don't have the Professor's House – just Shadows on a Rock and A Lost Lady – but I shall look out for it! Cather has become a real favourite of mine!Laura – Thank you! I hope you manage to find Lucy Gayheart and read it soon!Jodie – Thanks! If despair and hope are what you're after, this is definitely your book. A bit depressing but sometimes I like that!Aarti – Thank you! I know, I love having a first edition! It sounds so special!Sarah – Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. You should definitely pick this up if you can. I just finished The Blue Castle and loved it – can't wait to read more Montgomery!Another cookie – Do keep an eye out, Cather is spectacular! Thank you…laptop appears to be alright now!Vintage – Thank you! I should have said, I was encouraged to finally pick it up after reading your lovely review a while back.Jenny – You won't have long to wait!Makedo – Never heard of it?! I'm so glad that has been remedied! Another Blue Castle fan – I am added to the long list now – review is coming later!Cutlex – This is very true. I hope you manage to find it soon!Writerspet – I'm glad I managed to sell you! You are so right about The Blue Castle – the perfect book of indulgence!Darlene – I know you would love it!Rebecca – Thank you. I hope you find a copy -I want everyone to read it!OhSoVintage – Thank you. Definitely one to look out for!Simon- It is extraordinary indeed! I know, but I did pay £10 for it so it wasn't exactly bargain bin! I think I'd be the same – I wonder how many wonderful books I've missed out on through ignorance of the treasure inside?!

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