“CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD: A NOVEL,”
BY CAROLINE LEAVITT
PUBLICATION: ALGONQUIN BOOKS; OCTOBER 4, 2016
Synopsis: Caroline Leavitt is at her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.
It’s 1969, and sixteen-year-old Lucy 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 caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte’s youth has been 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, and explores what happens when you’re responsible for things you cannot make right.
“Cruel Beautiful World” is a beautiful and amazing new novel by author, Caroline Leavitt. The novel tells the story of two sisters, Lucy and Charlotte, in the late 60’s. Lucy is a sophomore and struggles with making good grades, whereas, Charlotte is a brainy senior getting ready to head off to college. After the death of their parents when they were young, Lucy and Charlotte came to live with and was adopted by Iris, their half-sister. The novel begins with the last day of school and also the day that Lucy plans to run away with her teacher and lover, William. Lucy fell in love with William after becoming a student in one of his classes and him becoming interested in helping her with her one passion – writing. Although William initially seemed resistant to a relationship with Lucy, with her being only 16, the two fall in love and run away to rural Pennsylvania. William has secured a teaching position at a progressive and liberal school, rented a house in the middle of nowhere and their plan is to keep things quiet and to stay mostly out of sight until Lucy is 18 and they can marry.
The evening of their last day of school, Charlotte and Iris realize that Lucy is out late past her curfew. Charlotte continues to worry and begins digging through Lucy’s room where she finds a note indicating that she is o.k., happy and will contact them soon. Iris and Charlotte contact the police, make flyers and do everything that they can think of – but have no leads as to where Lucy may have gone. Charlotte goes away to school as planned, but quickly finds herself struggling in her classes and not fitting in with other students. In the meantime, Iris who is now 79, is home alone and her health is failing. Charlotte struggles between worrying and missing Lucy and resentment that Lucy would run away and be so irresponsible.
Time passes slowly for Lucy and she grows more restless and lonely by the day. William promised to teach her to drive and help her obtain her GED, but none of that has happened. Both William and Lucy change more each day, with Lucy feeling trapped and William becoming paranoid that she doesn’t want to be with him. Lucy has secret writing in her journal, sneaks away from the house during the day, secretly gets a job, and even meets someone new. Things continue to deteriorate with all of the women in the novel until a tragedy changes everyone, especially Charlotte.
I loved each of the women in this novel, although they were all very different. Lucy begins as such a young, free-spirited soul with such romantic notions about life and the world. Charlotte begins as a serious, focused planner that needs to take care of everything and everyone. Iris has spent her life with her own happiness coming after that of others but has loved and adored the girls coming into her life and the family they became over the years. As intriguing as the characters are at the start of the novel, they capture your hearts even more as the story progresses. You get to see Lucy change from a young, carefree girl in love to recognizing what she wants and needs in life and wanting to stand up for it. Charlotte slowly begins to realize her lack of control over the world and that sometimes you don’t know all of the answers. Iris, my favorite character, finally learns how it feels to find and grasp happiness and that despite bad things in this world, it’s still o.k. for her to be happy.
Although this novel was absolutely heart-wrenching, it is absolutely one of the best things that I have ever read. The writing is incredible, the characters are beautifully developed and there is a powerful theme about family roles and relinquishing control over the universe. Leavitt reminds us that regardless of what we expect or hope to happen in life that there are no guarantees. Life happens, both good and bad, it is up to us what we do with it.
I must admit that I would have liked more closure with the ending, but after thinking it over, I suspect that the vagueness was intentional to strengthen the author’s message. This is definitely a novel to add to your TBR list, I cannot recommend it enough to any lovers of women’s fiction.
Learn more about Caroline Leavitt by visiting her web page.
Purchase “Cruel Beautiful World” on Amazon.
*Thanks to NetGalley for providing a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.