Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart gropes a wistful way back to the time of the horse and buggy, when some men and some women loved deeply and truly and make themselves miserable and hugged their misery.
Small towns, no less than Vienna and the Paris Left Bank and a Greenwich Village as dirty and noisy then as it is now, had romances of which they had a right to be proud.
So it is with Lucy Gayheart, written in 1935, When she wrote the novel, Cather had just turned 60 and was in tune with the zeitgeist that, shortly, would produce the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In her homey yet subtle way, she tapped into the modern loss of faith. And she created an existential novel.
A romance, a feminist story
It doesn’t seem that way at the beginning.
Indeed, Lucy Gayheart appears to be nothing more than a confection of a romance.
Lucy is the bright, lively, musical girl, a stand-out among her young adult peers in the small Nebraska town of Haverford where Harry Gordon, the banker’s son, is the most eligible bachelor. They seem made for each other as they skate together on the Platte River in the novel’s opening scene. They have always seemed made for each other.
But Lucy wants a career and has been working in Chicago. She becomes the piano accompanist to a much older classical singer, Clement Sebastian. The two fall in love in a chaste way, just as Harry sweeps into town and, with ham-handed arrogance, tells Lucy that it’s about time for them to get married, right? Wrong.
Then, the book seems to be on its way to becoming a feminist Horatio Alger story in which the plucky heroine will find her way to beauty (and maybe love) in the stratospheric Olympus of the high arts.