Love, Death, and Music – “Lucy Gayheart” by Willa Cather
I mean it. Geez.
Willa Cather saat herself down in 1935 and wrote one of the saddest books ever put in print. While reading it, I kept thinking of other books that have absolutely gutted me. The two I kept coming back to were Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” which also deals with unrequited love, dreams of freedom, and tragedy, and Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Widow’s Story,” which deals with love and death.
Lucy Gayheart is a pretty young woman with a talent for playing the piano. She leaves her small town for the big city of Chicago and scores a job as an accompanist for a successful singer – Clement Sebastian. The young pianist and the aging singer slowly fall for each other through their music, even though Sebastian is a married man. Into town comes a boy – Harry – from Lucy’s hometown who plans to marry her. Lucy tells Harry she loves another, and Harry returns home. Sebastian dies in a boating accident, Lucy is devastated and returns to her hometown to find that Harry has married another woman, and then Lucy winds up drowning while ice skating. This leaves Harry to live out the rest of his life married to a woman he doesn’t really love and regretting brushing Lucy off in the final moment he saw her – while she was on her way to that dangerous river. All that’s left of Lucy, years later, are some footprints in concrete outside a farm Harry now owns.
Yeah, there’s not a lot of laughs to be found in these pages.
Though “Lucy Gayheart” isn’t the happiest book in the world, it’s at least a gorgeous love letter to Chicago. In particular, the stretch of Michigan Avenue that’s near the lake shore gets a great deal of play, and Chicago is written in the book as the place where happy things happen as opposed to Lucy’s small hometown, where she’s miserable. As a resident of the wonderful Windy City, I enjoyed seeing my city elevated to a place of pure joy.
The book, fortunately, isn’t very long. After all, how much unhappiness can you handle before you simply put something back on the shelf? Willa Cather remains a splendid writer, and “Lucy Gayheart” is full of wonderful moments of her unique style and sensibilities. However, the fact that neither Lucy nor Sebastian are that well-developed of character makes it hard to feel as deeply for them as one could. Going back to Wharton’s “Ethan Frome,” by the time Ethan and Mattie meet their terrible ending you truly want them to get free and run away, which makes the sad lives they wind up leading ever so much sadder. “Lucy Gayheart” is missing that thread, and as such it reads as a terribly sad novel about characters you care somewhat for, but that you don’t continue to read for.
If you’re looking for an introduction to Ms. Cather, I suggest you pick up her (better and more well-known) masterpiece “My Antonia,” and give that one a read. It’s got all of Cather’s lovely writing, as well as several laughs in a compelling story.