Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: October 4th 2016
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction, Historical, Literary
Sometimes a book’s marketing can end up working against it. I found this to be the case with Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World. The synopsis and various blurbs referenced the Manson murders—a real piece of clickbait and yet, aside from being set in the summer of 1969 and the main protagonist’s worry about being left home alone the novel had nothing to do with that chilling event. More importantly, it didn’t need that push—there’s enough in the novel to leave Manson hype out of it. Lucy is a sixteen-year-old who falls in love with one of her teachers and he not only says he’s in love with her, he suggests they run away together. They do and what starts as wild, romantic fun devolves into something much less fun and far too real.
Lucy’s story is interwoven with that of her older sister Charlotte and her ‘mother’, Iris. Their parents died when they were little girls and they were raised by their aunt who becomes a mother to them. Leavitt creates an unusual but deeply touching family dynamic with Iris, Charlotte and Lucy, as Iris is 67 when the girls come to live with her. She’s never had children of her own and has lived alone since her husband died seven years ago, but she embraces the girls with a quiet love that is exactly what they need. When Lucy disappears it fractures everything they’ve built together and leaves Charlotte and Iris desperate for answers beyond the note Lucy leaves behind.
While the Vietnam War and the Manson murders contribute to the larger mindset of the times it is in the small world of farm stands, senior citizen homes, and veterinary clinics where Cruel Beautiful World comes to life. Lucy and William are the focus of the novel, but the quieter ancillary characters feel like Leavitt’s forte. For me, this is especially true of Iris, with her unconventional marriage when she was young and the difficulties of aging and loneliness as time passes. It’s unfortunate then that the tender sweetness of her story comes second to a plot that gets a bit convoluted. The end result is a novel that may work for fans of twists and turns, but will leave those wanting something more unsatisfied.