Excerpt from Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Cruel Beautiful World

by Caroline Leavitt

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 8, 2017, 384 pages

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1969

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.

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Excerpted from Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt. Copyright © 2016 by Caroline Leavitt. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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