Title: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Genre: Historical (60s, 70s), Fiction
Length: 369 pages
Book Rating: B
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
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.
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, free love and the Manson murders, Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a bittersweet novel about two sisters who discover that life very rarely lives up the their dreams.
After their parents’ death when they were young, Charlotte and Lucy moved in with their much older, distant relative Iris. At one time extremely close, the sisters began drifting apart as teens and by the time Lucy disappears, Charlotte has no idea what is going on her sister’s life. At the urging of Iris, she goes to college as planned but she is soon struggling to keep up academically with her fellow students. Meanwhile, Lucy’s life with her thirty year old teacher boyfriend William Lallo is slowly falling apart as she grows increasingly unhappy at their remote home in rural Pennsylvania. Iris is trying to come to terms with her empty nest while at the same time dealing with the realities of growing older. After Lucy’s life with William completely unravels, Charlotte tries to make sense of what happened to her sister in the year since she and Iris last saw her.
Oldest sister Charlotte is rather shy and serious but she is fiercely protective of Lucy. Determined to get into a good college, she is focused on getting stellar grades and acing her SAT. Completely consumed by thoughts of her future, Charlotte does not even notice when she and Lucy begin to drift apart. After Lucy runs away, she realizes she knows absolutely nothing about her sister’s life in the months leading up to her disappearance but this does not stop her from trying to find Lucy. After her hard work in school leads to an academic scholarship to a prestigious college, Iris insists she follow her dream instead of remaining at home with her. Charlotte is stunned by the reality of life on campus as her hopes of finally fitting in are quickly shattered and worse, she is struggling in all of her classes. An out of the blue phone call from Lucy resurrects old resentments, but Charlotte puts aside her feelings to try to rescue her sister.
Lucy is a bit of free spirit who struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations. When popular teacher William Lallo takes a special interest in her, she is excited and thrilled to finally have a class she excels in. When their relationship takes a romantic turn, Lucy sees nothing wrong with a thirty year old man loving her but she knows society will not turn a blind eye to their romance. As the school year draws to a close, she eagerly looks forward to them leaving and starting a new life together in Pennsylvania. Dismayed to find herself living in isolation with no friends and plenty of empty hours to fill while William is at work, Lucy soon falls out of love but with no money or job skills, she feels trapped by her impetuous decision. Trying to find some measure of independence from William, she begins roaming the countryside where she befriends the owner of vegetable stand, Patrick. Convincing him to let her work for him, Lucy’s yearning to escape William continues to grow but will she find a way to escape her controlling boyfriend?
Taking place during the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s, Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a compelling character driven novel that is beautifully written. While heavy foreshadowing leaves little doubt how Lucy’s story will end, Charlotte’s story arc is less defined but just as intriguing. The storyline is somewhat poignant yet ultimately uplifting as it wends its way to a satisfying conclusion.