|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
The novel revolves round the eponymous character, Lucy Gayheart, a young girl from Haverford, by the Platte River.
Book I: Lucy Gayheart
On Christmas holiday away from her piano studies in Chicago, Lucy Gayheart is ice skating in her hometown of Haverford, Nebraska. Harry Gordon, the most eligible bachelor in town, joins her. Later she takes the train back to Chicago - he is with her until the Omaha stop. In a prolepsis, she recalls going to a performance by Clement Sebastian and later to an audition with him - she has one scheduled for her return. Back in Chicago then, she goes to a concert by the same artist. The next day she goes to his place for a singing practice, and meets his valet Giuseppe. She will replace Sebastian's accompanist, James Mockford, whilst the latter is convalescent. During these practice sessions, Clement Sebastian seems distant. Once he gets a call asking for money, which must be from his wife. On another occasion, he goes to Madame Renee de Vignon's funeral; later he goes into that same Catholic church again. Sebastian goes off to Minnesota and Wisconsin on a tour with Mockford. Lucy feels dejected. However, she gets a telegram from Sebastian telling her to come to his studio the following day - this cheers her up. However, when she returns to his studio, she asks him if he ever got pleasure out of being in love. He says, "N-n-no, not much," then asks her "Why? -- Do you?" She replies, "Yes, I do. And nobody can spoil it." This embarrasses her—she worried that it exposed her love for him and she leaves abruptly. He manages to meet her again at Auerbach's (the studio where she studies and also gives lessons) and calms her fears. Later, both Lucy and Sebastian are depressed; the latter takes her to dinner and tells her about Larry MacGowan, a friend from his school days who died recently. The next day he tells her he loves her but is old enough to be her father so will not act on his love. He says that she is not really in love with him, only growing up and "finding things." Later, when Sebastian is off on an Eastern U.S. tour, Harry visits her and they go to operas and museums together. Although she seems appreciative and making an effort to be nice, she finds his visit stressful. She rejects his proposal for marriage, saying that she loves someone else.
Sebastian finally comes back briefly; Lucy is to go to New York City to be his accompanist in the winter, after he tours Europe. Meanwhile, she has to rehearse, and she will take up Sebastian's apartment as her studio. On his departure she cries. Later she receives a letter from her sister Pauline which says Harry has gotten married to Miss Arkwright. Professor Auerbach asks Lucy what she wants to do in her future—accompany other singers or get married to Harry (whom he briefly met). He implies that it is difficult for a female accompanist -- "For the platform they always have a man."—thus, a female accompanist would only be for rehearsals. This discourages Lucy. In September, Professor Auerback reads in the newspaper that Sebastian and Mockford drowned in Lake Como, near Cadenabbia.
Lucy returns to Haverford. No one knows why she has returned and there is some gossip about it with some saying that Professor Auerbach had fired her. Harry is very glib with Lucy whenever he meets her. She feels depressed, and her only solace is sit in the orchard. When her sister Pauline wants to remove it to make more money growing onions and potatoes, she throws a tantrum, Pauline gives in, and it is not cut down. Later she visits Mrs. Alec Ramsay, an elderly lady and old friend, who has been asking after her and plays the piano there. At night she sometimes has nightmares. She then goes into the bank in another attempt to talk to Harry, but again he sends her away glibly. Mr. Gayheart has bought tickets for the opera. The performance seems humdrum to Lucy, but she is very impressed with the soprano's performance. The soprano had obviously seen better days and a better opera company than her present traveling opera company, but yet she gave a wonderful performance. "The wandering singer had struck something in her that went on vibrating; something that was like a purpose forming, and she could not stop it." The day before Christmas, the thought comes to her -- "What if -- what if Life itself were the sweetheart? It was like a lover waiting for her in distant cities -- across the sea; drawing her, enticing her, weaving a spell over her." This cheers her up and the next day, she writes to Professor Auerbach and inquires about returning to her job with him in Chicago again. He replies that she can come in March, when her replacement, the current teacher, leaves. Meanwhile, Pauline has heard that Lucy may have had a love affair with a singer who died. In late January, Pauline announces that she has two piano students for Lucy. Lucy refuses to teach them. In the ensuing argument, Pauline indicates that their father has made financial sacrifices and gone into debt to finance Lucy's musical education in Chicago. She also indicates that she has heard talk about Lucy and Sebastian and that the gossip is that Harry threw Lucy over when he found out about the two. After this, Lucy leaves the house carrying her skates. She finds it hard going due to a recent snowfall and decides to catch a ride with whoever passes so that she can return. However, Harry is the person who appears. When she asks for a ride, he pretends he is too busy to take her back to her house and drives past her. She reaches the area that she and her friends had always used for skating. However, the river has changed its course since she last skated there and the shallow part that froze solid is no longer there. Lucy is so angry at Harry for driving past her that she does not notice any change in the river. When she skates toward the center, the ice cracks and she falls through. One of her skates catches on a submerged branch of a tree that had fallen in during the spring flood last year. Her body is found by her father and other locals.
This book is written from Harry Gordon's point of view and includes his reflections. Twenty-five years later, in 1927, Mr. Gayheart is brought back from Chicago, where he died in a hospital. Pauline had died five years earlier, so he was the sole remaining member of the family. Many people turn up at the funeral. Harry had become chummy with Mr Gayheart after Pauline's death and they would often play chess together. It is revealed in Harry's thoughts that he had regretted his hasty marriage and that it had been in retaliation for Lucy's rejection. When she returned to Haverford, he realized that he still loved her, but still wanted to punish her for rejecting him so he avoided her and tried to distance himself from her, even though he knew she wanted contact. "He knew that if he were alone with her for a moment and she held out her hands to him with that look [of pleading], he couldn't punish her any more -- and she deserved to be punished." He blamed himself for her death. Harry had given Mr. Gayheart a mortgage with the Gayheart farm as surety in the last years of Mr. Gayheart's life. Mr. Gayheart had been unable to repay the mortgage, so Harry now owned the farm. He ponders on the footprints made by Lucy at 13 in a concrete sidewalk when it was newly laid. He tells his bank assistant Milton Chase that he can have the farmhouse to live in, provided that Chase makes sure that nothing happens to the footprints. He says that Chase will inherit the farm when he dies.
- Lucy Gayheart, a local youth. She goes to Chicago to study music. Her mother died when she was six, and she was mostly brought up by her sister Pauline. She likes to sit by the Lutheran church. She dies in 1902, drowning in icy lake water.
- Jacob Gayheart, Lucy's father. He is a watchmaker and gives lessons of clarinet, flute and violin to local children. He was born in Belleville, Illinois and his parents were Bavarian. His two sons have died. He likes to play chess. He dies in 1927.
- Mrs Gayheart, Jacob Gayheart's late wife. She was American, and bought the farm for her family.
- Pauline Gayheart, Lucy's elder sister by twelve years. She is 'level-headed'. She dies in 1922.
- Jim Hardwick, a local youth.
- Harry Gordon, a local youth. He is rich. He is eight years older than Lucy. He used to play baseball. He goes on to marry Harriet Arkwright after Lucy rejects his proposal to marriage. Later he turns glib towards her, and leaves her alone in the cold on the night she dies.
- Harry Gordon's father, a banker who moved to Haverford with his son when he was but a young child.
- Fairy Blair, a local girl. She doesn't like Lucy.
- Harriet Arkwright of St Joseph, a rich girl, whom Harry has been seeing. She ends up getting married to Harry. When he is away on the war front, she manages the bank.
- Professor Paul Auerbach, Lucy's music teacher in Chicago.
- Mrs Auernach, Professor Auerbach's wife.
- Mrs Schneff, a baker in Chicago, whom Lucy met through Mrs Auerbach. She rents her a room in her house.
- Clement Sebastian, a singer from Europe staying temporarily in Chicago, using it as a base from which to tour.
- James Mockford, Clement Sebastien's accompanist. He is English and lame. Clement Sebastian calls him 'Jimmy'. He is gingerhaired.
- Giuseppe, Clement Sebastian's valet. He used to work in Florence and Clement Sebastian met him in London.
- Morris Weisbourn, Clement Sebastian's concert agent.
- Mrs Sebastian, Clement's wife, who lives in Paris.
- Madame Renee de Vignon, a late friend of Clement Sebastian's.
- Robert Lester, Mrs Sebastian's father. He was a prominent conductor.
- Larry MacGowan, a late friend of Sebastian's, who dies Savoy, near Sallanches, where the two men had been hiking together in their youth. They fell out when he was rude on a visit to their house in Chantilly. The two men had lived together when they were in their twenties.
- Marius, a child that Sebastian tried to adopt. However, Mrs. Sebastian did not like him, so he was sent to school in Paris.
- Mrs Alec Ramsay, a widow from Haverford. She is in her seventies, though fairly spry.
- Molly, a child from Haverford.
- Doctor Bridgeman, a doctor from Haverford.
- Doctor Bridgeman's wife
- Jerry Sleeth, a carpenter from Haverford. He is a Seventh-Day Advent.
- Father MacCormac, a Catholic priest from Haverford.
- Mrs Jackmann
- Madge Norwall, Mrs Ramsay's daughter, who lives in Omaha.
- Theodore, Madge's son, in college in Omaha.
- Poole, a man Pauline has employed to fell down the orchard.
- Milton Chase, a young cashier at the Platte Valley Bank.
- Sidney Gilchrist, a friend of Fairy Blair's and student of Auerbach.
- Gullford, a carriage driver in Haverford.
- Nick Wakefield, a local youth in Haverford.
- Whitney, Harry's lawyer.
Alllusions to actual history
- Jacob Gayheart's parents were German immigrants who moved to Belleville, Illinois, probably after the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states.
- The First World War is mentioned through Harry, who left Haverford to help.
Allusions to other works
- In Book I, Chapter 3, Harry Gordon mentions the waltz Hearts and Flowers.
- Lucy first hears Clement Sebastian sing a Franz Schubert song about Castor and Pollux. He then proceeds to sing a rendition of Lord Byron's When We Two Parted. Other operas mentioned by him are The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini, Hérodiade by Jules Massenet, Elijah by Felix Mendelssohn, Claude Debussy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
- Clement Sebastian also mentions writers Michel de Montaigne, and William Shakespeare with Macbeth.
- Harry takes Lucy to see Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, Otello and La traviata, and Richard Wagner's Lohengrin.
- At the Art Museum, Harry doesn't like French Impressionism.
- During Harry's Chicago visit, 'O Sole Mio is also mentioned.
- Lucy and her father mention H.M.S. Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan, Die Fledermaus, La belle Hélène, and The Bohemian Girl.