Summary and book reviews of Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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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Book Summary

Set in the early 1970s against the specter of the Manson girls, when the peace and love movement begins to turn ugly, this is the story of a runaway teenager's disappearance and her sister's quest to discover the truth.

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 nightmare. 

With gorgeous prose and indelible characters, Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, and what happens when you're responsible for things you can't fix.

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Caroline Leavitt's ability to bring complex characters to life in a way that touches the reader to the core is amazing. I found myself completely immersed in each subplot as the novel progressed. This ability to engage the reader in such a complex way is the mark of a great novel.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Full Review Members Only (475 words).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

A capable, readable, empathetic novel, yet its impact is minimal.

Booklist

Themes of love, romantic and familial, reflect the title. Although the plot is reminiscent of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply (2009), the tone and coming-of-age themes are more likely to attract readers of Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow (2011) or Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home (2012)

Library Journal

Overall, this is a compelling exploration of love and loyalty, which could have been made perfect with a shade more Vietnam-era context.

Author Blurb Lily King, author of Euphoria
Backdropped by the Vietnam War and the Manson Murders, Cruel Beautiful World is a fast moving page-turner about the naiveté of youth and the malignity of power. Leavitt explores with a keen eye the intersection of love, family, and the anxiety of an era.

Author Blurb Gail Godwin, author of Flora
Leavitt's most accomplished book yet, Cruel Beautiful World, is a seamless triumph of storytelling.

Author Blurb Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
With Cruel, Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt has done the seemingly impossible: she's written a gorgeous, seductive novel that is also terrifying and pulse-pounding.

Author Blurb Sara Gruen, author of At Water's Edge
Tender and tragic, with a shooting star of hope, Leavitt's profound latest is about the connections of siblings, the mystery of love - first, last and dangerous - and the struggle to accept what can never be changed.

Author Blurb J. Courtney Sullivan, author of The Engagements
At once a page-turner that leaves you holding your breath, and a gorgeous meditation on love and family. Cruel Beautiful World had me in its thrall from start to finish.

Author Blurb Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace
Breathtaking... Leavitt has spun a masterful web of seduction and loyalty, infatuation and love... It is hard to read this novel and not think of Lolita and of Dan Chaon's psychological thriller, Await Your Reply... poignant and complex.

Author Blurb Robin Black, author of Life Drawing
A brave book, and a powerfully moving one.

Author Blurb Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, New York Times bestselling author of Bittersweet and June
Fierce and tender at once, Cruel Beautiful World flames with the sweetness of new love, smolders with bitter regret, and burns with all the mistakes in between... a wonder of triumph and tragedy.

Author Blurb Christina Baker Kline, Number 1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train
Set in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, Cruel Beautiful World is a riveting, fluid and compelling novel about love and loss, secrets and lies, and what it means to be a family. Its twists and turns will keep you reading late into the night.

Reader Reviews

Susan P. (Boston, MA)

Cruel Beautiful World
I'm usually disinclined to read stories about runaways, especially in controlling relationships, but I couldn't pass up a Caroline Leavitt book. And she did not disappoint! The story of 2 teenage sisters in the late 1960s who live with their ...   Read More

Cindy C. (Withee, WI)

Cruel Beautiful World
I found this book enjoyable and hard to put down. At the time this story took place, I would have been just a little younger than Lucy and Charlotte, so I remember some of this stuff. And the story of a young girl running off with her teacher is ...   Read More

Eve A. (Henderson, NV)

Cruel Beautiful World
This is the story of a teenage girl who runs away with her high school teacher. It is a story of the effect this act has on her, her teacher, their families and the people they meet along the way. I was drawn into the story right from the beginning...   Read More

Vicki O. (Boston, MA)

Cruel Beautiful World
Reading a novel like Cruel Beautiful World that evokes an array of emotions in a subtle way is a pleasure. At various times during the story, I felt like shaking Lucy, comforting Iris and Charlotte, crying with Patrick and yelling at Michael. All ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Manson Girls

Cruel Beautiful World is set in the early '70s against the specter of the Manson girls.

The horrific story of Charles Manson, the cult leader who believed he was the Messiah and who then orchestrated murders in Los Angeles to spark a race war, is fairly well-known at least in American culture.

More recently, his "girls," women attracted to his cause and who believed he was Jesus Christ, have enjoyed renewed attention in the spotlight thanks to a series of documentaries and novels about them. These girls, barely out of their teens, were recruited by Manson as part of his "family" and were active members of the bizarre cult he founded.

Among the girls is Leslie Van Houten, now 66 and serving time in a California prison, who was an ...

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