Pub. Date: October 4, 2016
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Algonquin Books!)
Summary: 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 nightmare.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Family Drama
Set against a backdrop of bell bottoms, free love, and the Manson Family, Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World explores the sibling dynamic of two very different girls and how their family changes when the younger sister runs away with an older man.
As children, Charlotte and Lucy were sent to live with a much older aunt after their parents had died in a terrible accident. Iris was in her 60s and had given up dreams of being a mother decades earlier when she was contacted about these two little girls, girls she learned were her much, much younger half-sisters (with each marriage, her father had opted for younger and younger wives), a secret she kept to herself for many years. While the girls eventually opened up to and, later, fiercely loved Iris, they still heavily relied on each other – Charlotte and Lucy against the world. As they grew older, friends and interests came and went: studious Charlotte had no time for parties or drugs, while Lucy had a wild spirit and was always up for a good time. Just as Charlotte was preparing to leave for college Lucy vanished, leaving only a note behind saying she was happy and that everything was fine.
Having fallen in love with her teacher William, Lucy never imagined he would return her feelings. Over time their looks and glances turned into nights spent at his apartment and, ultimately, a plan to move away. William found a position teaching at an alternative school in rural Pennsylvania and wanted Lucy at his side, though he was adamant they keep their relationship secret until her 18th birthday. Young and hopelessly in love, Lucy agreed – she would have gone halfway around the world if William had asked – and days turned into weeks and then into months, all the while Charlotte and Iris desperately continued their search, never giving up hope that Lucy would one day return home.
I love a good family drama and Cruel Beautiful World fit the bill perfectly. In fact, it was so character-driven that I think some readers might not enjoy its slower pace, but I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. With Lucy’s disappearance, Iris’s backstory comes into focus and, my goodness, I loved that woman. She had been married once to a sailor she met a few days before he went off to fight and when he returned to learned a heartbreaking secret. Her reaction to the realization only made me love her more and I refuse to spoil anything #sorrynotsorry.
As is to be expected, Lucy soon discovered life with William wasn’t what she had dreamed it would be. He doesn’t want her to learn to drive just yet (there’s no telling who she might run into) and their tiny house is so far out in the country she only has the chickens for company. Though she was never as bright or academically talented as Charlotte, Lucy loved to write and, with nothing else to do, she spends her days with her journal, growing lonelier and lonelier.
I’ve found that when I really like a book or it made a strong impression I can’t seem to stop discussing it and that’s certainly the case here. Cruel Beautiful World features a scene that truly surprised me and the rest of the novel deals with the fallout. By the end I’m still not entirely sure who or what to believe!
I will say though that Cruel Beautiful World had one nagging issue I couldn’t quite shake: I never got a real feel for the time period. Going in I expected to be living and breathing the late 60s, but that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, this novel could have easily taken place in the present day were it not for a few brief mentions of students wearing bell bottoms or a handful of reports about the Manson Family but those were few and far between.
Cruel Beautiful World is just that: a tragic and lovely story about a family brought together by unfortunate circumstances who learned to love one another, only to be torn apart once more. Fans of a more action-packed tale might not find this one as enjoyable as I did, but someone who lives for fantastic characters will certainly inhale this one! Although the book is set in the late 60s and early 70s, there was never truly a sense of the time period and could have easily taken place in the present day (especially with such a topical subject: a student/teacher relationship). While I tore through this one (on a stormy, rainy night suitably moody for such a somber story) its very ambiguous ending might not appeal to readers who prefer closure.