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!