Cruel Beautiful World

Cruel Beautiful World

by Caroline Leavitt


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“A gorgeous, seductive novel that is also terrifying and pulse-pounding.” —Wiley Cash, author of The Dark Road to Mercy

“Backdropped by the Vietnam War and the Manson murders, Cruel Beautiful World is a fast-moving page-turner about the naïveté of youth and the malignity of power. Leavitt exploreswith a keen eye the intersection of love, family, and the anxiety of an era.” —Lily King, author of Euphoria

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616203634
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eleven novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a book critic for People, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA.

Read an Excerpt


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 for her to do what she’s going to do. Lucy is terrified, but she acts as if everything is ordinary. She eats the bacon, the triangles of rye toast, and the scrambled eggs that Iris leaves her, freckling them with pepper and pushing the lumpy curds around her plate. Lucy drinks the orange juice Iris pours for her and picks up the square multivitamin next to her plate, pretending to swallow it but then spitting it out in her napkin moments later because it has this silty undertaste. She wants to tell Iris to take more vitamins, since she won’t be around to remind her. It’s nearly impossible for her to believe that Iris turned seventy-nine in May. Everyone always says Iris barely looks in her late sixties, and just last week Lucy spotted an old man giving Iris the once-over at a restaurant, his eyes drifting over her body, lingering on her legs. Lucy knows three kids at school whose parents—far younger than Iris—have died suddenly: two fathers felled by heart attacks, a mother who suffered a stroke while walking the dog. Lucy knows that anything can happen and age is the hand at your back, giving you an extra push toward the abyss.

She tells herself Iris will be fine. Iris hasn’t had to work for years, since receiving sizable insurance money from her husband, who died in his sixties. Plus, she has money from Lucy’s parents. Lucy had never heard her parents talk about Iris, but Iris told Lucy and Charlotte it was because she was only very distantly related.

Lucy was only five when her parents died, Charlotte a year and a half older, and she doesn’t remember much about that life, though she’s seen the photos, two big red albums Iris keeps on a high shelf. She’s in more of the photos with her parents than Charlotte is, and she wonders whether that’s because Charlotte didn’t like being photographed then any more than she does now. There are lots of photos of Charlotte and Lucy together, jumping rope, sitting in a circle of dolls, laughing. But the photos of her parents alone! Her mother, winking into the camera, is all banana blond in a printed dress, her legs long and lean as a colt’s. Her father, burly and dark, with a mustache so thick it looks like a scrub brush, is kissing her mother’s cheek. They hold hands in the pictures. They smooch over a Thanksgiving turkey. They were at a supper club, dancing and having dinner, the girls at home with a sitter, when the fire broke out. Later, the news reports said it was someone’s cigarette igniting a curtain into flames so heavy most of the people there never made it out.

When she thinks about her parents, Lucy feels as if there is a mosquito trapped and buzzing in her body. She tells herself the stories Charlotte has told her, the few Charlotte can remember. There was the time their parents took them to Florida and they rode ponies on the beach. The time they all went to New York City to look at the Christmas lights and Lucy cried because the multitude of Santa Clauses confused her. She has told herself all these stories so many times she can almost convince herself that she really remembers them. Iris has no stories about the girls’ parents. “Our lives were all so busy,” Iris says. “We just never got together.”

Lucy glances at Iris bustling around the kitchen, pouring coffee, reaching for the sugar. She looks old, her skin lined, her hands embroidered with blue veins. Iris has never seemed old before, Lucy thinks. Iris took the girls to the park, she threw and sometimes caught Frisbees. The only thing she couldn’t do was take the girls to a movie in the evening, because she didn’t like driving at night. Plus, she preferred to go to bed early. Charlotte was always Iris’s “big-girl helper,” watching Lucy on the swings, running after her, and, a lot of the time, just sitting on one of the benches with Iris, the two of them with their heads dipped together, laughing, so that Lucy would have to stand on the swings and go higher just to blot out the surprise of being the odd person out.

Iris turns the TV to another channel. She shakes her head when she sees the hippies on the news, a sudden influx of them congregated and camping out in Boston Common, spread out on the green lawn like wildflowers, all of them in tie-dyes and striped or polka-dot pants and bare feet, some of the girls in flowing dresses or minis so tiny they barely cover their thighs, but Lucy finds herself glued to the set. “Like sheep!” Iris says, pointing to the way the cops are herding the kids back onto the streets. “Look at how they dress!” Iris marvels.

Lucy sighs. Iris wears jewel-tone silk dresses every day, or blouses and skirts. She’s always in low-heeled, strappy shoes. Her white hair is braided into a fussy ring around her head, like Heidi, and her earrings are always button ones, instead of the long, jangly ones Lucy wears. “Look at that one,” Iris says when the camera focuses on a boy with ringlets skimming his shoulders. “What a world,” Iris marvels, and she shuts the set off. But Lucy loves the way the hippies look, the multitude of rings on their toes and fingers, the clashing clothes. These kids are part of a life glittering just inches away from her, and all she has to do is grab hold, the way she does with William’s hair, thick and shiny as satin. She can almost feel her hands in it, tugging him closer to kiss her.

She wants to tell Iris and Charlotte. She wants to tell someone, but she can’t.

Iris hands Lucy a brown paper bag filled with a peanut butter sandwich and an apple, the same lunch Lucy’s had since elementary school. Iris sits down and pulls out the crossword puzzle from the daily newspaper. This is her favorite part of the day. She picks up a pencil and chews on the end and then glances at Lucy again. “Honey, go find a hairbrush before you go,” Iris says.

Lucy pats down her cap of curls and then sits and finishes her juice. She looks around the kitchen as if she’s memorizing every detail—the oak table and chairs, the braided rug—because until she’s eighteen, just two years from now, when no one can legally stop her from being with William, she won’t see this room again.

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Cruel Beautiful World 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Terribly written, terribly edited terrible story. It was slow, predictable and unsophisticated. If this can get published, we all have hope.
Gail-Cooke More than 1 year ago
Love and loss, actions and choices combine in this beautiful mesmerizing novel by Caroline Leavitt. It is the story of a family rent asunder set in the late 1960s, the years of the Vietnam War, the Manson murders, a time of hope and disillusionment. The family at the heart of the story consists of three - Lucy, a pretty rambunctious teenager, Charlotte, her older, more settled sister who has looked out for Lucy since their parents died in a car accident, and there is Iris, a childless widow who took the girls in. Iris has had no experience in mothering but as the years passed the three have become a family. Lucy is not an exceptional student while Charlotte is a standout. But Lucy has her dreams and thinks they may have come true when her English teacher, William Lallo, takes an interest in her. He praises her works, tells her she has talent as a writer. Lallo is the kind of teacher most girls would fancy in 1969 with his jeans and long hair. He seems to have an understanding of the kids and the world at large. It doesn’t take long before Lucy is meeting him at his apartment. From there it goes to running away together, after all they only need each other and they will make a home. This all sounds so romantic to Lucy. Lucy leaves a note for Charlotte and Iris telling them not to worry (as if that were possible). Lallo find another job in Pennsylvanis and finds a place for them to live in a desolate area where Lucy’s only company are chickens. He tells her they must hide until she is 18 and of legal age. Months pass and Charlotte and Iris hear nothing from Lucy. There is no help from the authorities as “kids run away all the time.” Charlotte is desolate. Blaming herself for not being closer to Lucy and understanding her. She leaves Lucy’s bedroom window open each night in the hope that Lucy will return. As time passes Charlotte goes off to college yet her younger sister is never far from her mind. Now Iris is alone and it is at this point that we learn her story. Lallo becomes more controlling, insisting that Lucy never leave the house. Her isolation is almost more than she can bear and she manages to briefly forge a friend with Patrick who runs a nearby vegetable stand. At one point she even manages to send a postcard to Iris and Charlotte. Throughout this pulse pounding novel Leavitt has been building suspense that culminates in a tragic turn in Lucy’s life. Iris and Charlotte are desperate for answers and Charlotte takes it upon herself to look into the matter full time. Leavitt has crafted a stellar story - compelling, gorgeous and haunting which may leave readers pondering as to the real meaning of family and what family members owe one another. Enjoy!.
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
What a great story. It begins with an older woman taking care of two teenagers that were related to her that she started taking care of when they were very young. They were very young when she took over their care, but the reason why comes later in the book. The background of this woman, Iris, is really heartbreaking, but she takes it all in stride. She ends up being an incredible woman, strong and just an unbelievable woman. Then there are the girls that she takes on to raise. One is 6 1/2 years old and the other is 5 year old. For Iris, they come out of nowhere. She takes them in and considers them her own children, not an easy job. Especially when the two girls have just lost both their parents. It's a rough ride for a while, but they begin to accept and love her. As teenagers, they come into their own and that's when the trouble begin. I won't go any further, because I don't want to spoil anything. However, I will tell you that one of the girls believe their teacher who is in his 30's believes he's in love with him and leave with him and go to Pennsylvania to start a new life. I totally expected him to tie her up in the basement and feed her once a week and abuse her. However, he uses a psychological way to keep her from leaving. I really, really loved this book. Although I had some projects going on, I seriously did not want to put this book down. There were so many things going on and I just had to know the answers. The author did a great job in writing this book and I commend her on a great job. I would recommend this book to everyone. There were a lot of emotional moments and I really felt for the characters. I did not like Lucy's ending and I wanted more hurt and pain for William. I could name the punishments, but I will refrain from them. I will just say, they would not be comfortable or fun, Huge thanks for Algonquin Books and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.