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Reviews of Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

Cruel Beautiful World

by Caroline Leavitt

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt X
Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 352 pages

    Aug 2017, 384 pages


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About this Book

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.


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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think Leavitt called this novel Cruel Beautiful World? How does the title relate to the themes of her novel?
  2. Leavitt's novel is told from the points of view of five characters: Charlotte, Lucy, Iris, Patrick, and William. Do you think the novel is more effective told this way, from a closed point of view, or do you think it would have had more impact if she had used a third-person omniscient narrative? Why do you think Leavitt chose this way of telling the story, and how would the novel have been different if she had taken a different approach?
  3. Leavitt is deliberately unclear about what really happened to Lucy and if William was really culpable.  Why do you think she left it open-ended? What do you think really ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about Cruel Beautiful World.
You can see the full discussion here.

A reviewer wrote, the novel "is all about love until it's not." What do you think this reviewer means? In writing about the many faces of love, what statement do you think the author is making about love in general?
I had the impression the author wanted to address the many forms of love in order to show the variances from the parental to the sisterly, as well as the lust that can so quickly morph into control and obsession - not to mention Lucy's transformation... - melindah

Cruel Beautiful World
I agree with alycet. I believe Son of Sam is about to be released from prison and that Manson is already free. I do not believe that either of these men changed over the years. You certainly should not take so many lives and then walk free. Even ... - reene

Do you agree with the underlying theme about how we can control some things and prevent others, but sometimes we simply have to yield to life and let it happen.
Alycet, Aloha. Who you explain on your exact meaning of grand plan, please? - alwaysdaddygirl

Do you think the characters could have made different decisions that would have changed the outcome, or would everything have had to play out just as it did? Do you think they could have done more to effect change in their lives?
If Patrick had reacted sooner perhaps Lucy would still be alive. I think in today's world someone in Patrick's position might have reacted differently and gotten the authorities involved when he knew her age and that she had been seduced by an older ... - Navy Mom

Do you think the novel is more effective told from the individual points of view. How would it have been different if told by an omniscient narrator?
I wish the story had been told only from Lucy's perspective and Charlotte's perspective. The other points of view were distracting and really did not move the story forward. Multiple narrators seems to be a popular literary device right now. - lisar

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BookBrowse Review


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...continued

Full Review (475 words)

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Media Reviews

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.

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

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.

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

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

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 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.

Reader Reviews

Becky H

Lucy, 16 and naive, runs away with her High School teacher. Their life together in an isolated, and isolating, rural area is not what Lucy expected. Lucy is portrayed sympathetically. The reader gets to know her intimately through her thoughts ...   Read More
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

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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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