Written by Caroline Leavitt
Published by Algonquin Books on October 4th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Sixteen-year-old Lucy Gold is about ;to run away with a much older man to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy's default parent for most of their lives, Charlotte has seen her youth marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy's dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare. Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, chaos and control, as it explores what happens when you're responsible for things you cannot make right. Set against a backdrop of peace, love, and the Manson murders, the novel is a reflection of the era: exuberant, defiant, and precarious all at once. And Caroline Leavitt isat her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.
CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD: A Novel, by Caroline Leavitt
- What’s it about? Caroline Leavitt told NPR about two experiences that informed the novel Cruel Beautiful World. During high school, she knew a girl who was murdered by her controlling, much older boyfriend. Ten years later, she became embroiled with a controlling boyfriend of her own.
The controlling boyfriend in Cruel Beautiful World is William. After losing his job as a high-school English teacher, he moves to rural Pennsylvania. Trusting his assurances that their relationship will be easier there, his sixteen-year-old girlfriend goes with him. Lucy thinks they’re in love and is all too willing to accept William’s conditions for their relationship. Secrecy is at the top of that list, and so when Lucy leaves with William she just leaves a vague note for her sister Charlotte and aunt Iris.
The prospect of life with William excites Lucy at first, but she grows restless as he limits her activities and keeps her increasingly isolated. She rebels in small, secret ways, growing bolder as she begins to discover herself. Meanwhile, William is increasingly threatened by her movements toward independence. Eventually, Lucy reaches out to her family and tells William she’s leaving. When Charlotte arrives to bring her home, she finds a crime scene and is soon obsessed with understanding what happened to her little sister.
- Why did I read it? I picked up a galley of Cruel Beautiful World at Book Expo last spring. The jacket copy promised a story of family secrets set against the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s, and I have a weakness for that kind of fiction. The novel published in October, and I’m trying to do a better job of reading my “advance” copies before a book’s been out for months.
Bullet Point Book Reactions
- What worked for me? Cruel Beautiful World is absorbing and moves along at a good pace. Leavitt’s occasional detours to explore the backgrounds of secondary characters add depth to the main narrative. The period trappings played up in the jacket copy ultimately didn’t amount to much, but I didn’t find that a drawback. That said, there’s a lot in this story that works largely because it’s set before the age of the Internet and cellphones.
- What didn’t I like? I thought Leavitt developed the secondary characters in Cruel Beautiful World more fully than the main ones, and that was a problem for me. The Lucy/William storyline was a bigger problem, though.
I realize that Lucy is naive and lacks the life experience to recognize William as predatory and abusive. I realize that William is supposed to be problematic. And while working on this post, I learned that this plot was inspired by actual people and events. Despite all that, it felt like one of the weaker elements of the novel to me–and since it’s the main plot thread, that’s a problem.
- Recommended? I rated Cruel Beautiful World as “so-so” on Litsy, and I’m sticking with that.
CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD: Opening Lines
Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat. She’s downstairs in the kitchen, and Iris has the TV on. The weather guy, his skin golden as a cashew, is smiling about power outages, urging the elderly and the sick to stay inside, his voice sliding like a trombone, and as soon as she hears the word “elderly,” Lucy glances uneasily at Iris.
“He doesn’t mean me, honey,” Iris says mildly, putting more bacon to snap in the pan. “I’m perfectly fine.”
Good, Lucy thinks, good, because it makes it that much easier to do what she’d going to do. Lucy is terrified, but she acts as if everything is ordinary.