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Cover image for Cruel beautiful world : a novel
Cruel beautiful world : a novel
First edition.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016.
Physical Description:
357 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
"Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited."
"Set in the early 1970s amid 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"-- Provided by publisher.


Call Number
Leavitt, C.

On Order



"A seductive page-turner that ripples with an undercurrent of suspense." --The Boston Globe

"A seamless triumph of storytelling." --Gail Godwin, author of Flora

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 frightening repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy's default caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte has always been burdened by having to be the responsible one, but never more so than when Lucy's dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare.

With precise, haunting prose and indelible characters, Cruel Beautiful World examines the infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, and most of all, tells a universal story of sisterhood and the complicated legacy of family.

"Absorbing." --The New York Times Book Review

"Captivating."--Los Angeles Times

"Engrossing." --People

"Page-turning suspense." --New York Journal of Books

"Riveting." --Marie Claire

"Marvelous."--The National Book Review

"Hauntingly brilliant." --Coastal Living

"Gripping and suspenseful." --BookPage

"Moving." --The Washington Post

Author Notes

Caroline Leavitt has written several books including Girls in Trouble, Coming Back to Me, Living Other Lives, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines and Pictures of You. She won First Prize in Redbook Magazine's Young Writers Contest for her short story, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, which grew into the novel and the 1990 New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction for Into Thin Air. Her essays, stories, and articles have appeared in numerous publications including New York magazine, Psychology Today, Parenting, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. She is a book critic for The Boston Globe and People and a writing instructor at UCLA online.

Leavitt is the author of the bestseller, It this Tomorrow.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 6

School Library Journal Review

Sixteen-year-old Lucy is drifting through her sophomore year of high school when her handsome English teacher takes an interest in her writing-and then in her. After Lucy and her teacher run off together, the teen's older sister, Charlotte, is devastated, unsure whether to pursue her college plans or stay with their adoptive mother, Iris, in the house Lucy left behind. It's 1969, a time when teenage girls were fleeing their conventional lives in search of peace and love. But Lucy's idyllic escape leads only to a lonely farmhouse where her older lover intends to keep her hidden until she turns 18. Lucy's narrative alternates with those of Charlotte and Iris, each of them grappling with sexuality, personal accomplishment, and the need to belong. Their individual tales are surprising, revealing the secret depths of each woman's interior life as well as characters' fledgling attempts to truly know one another. Leavitt (Is This Tomorrow; Girls in Trouble) delivers another deeply introspective coming-of-age tale. VERDICT For readers hooked on novels set in the 1960s.-Diane Colson, City College, Gainesville, FL © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this suspenseful novel by Leavitt (Pictures of You), impulsive 16-year-old Lucy runs away with her high school English teacher, William, "the coolest teacher on the planet." It's 1969, and Lucy is itching to get away from the working-class suburb of Boston where she lives with her high-achieving older sister, Charlotte, and their elderly guardian, Iris. William, cautioning her that they'll both be in danger if they're caught, takes her to live in an isolated house in rural Pennsylvania, from which he goes out to teach at a progressive elementary school, leaving her to do housework, feed the chickens, write in her journal, and secretly take a job at a farm stand run by grieving young widower Patrick. Leavitt alternates among the points of view of Lucy, Charlotte, Iris, and Patrick. The first half of the novel is a model of restrained and matter-of-fact horror: Lucy has no idea how much danger she is in, but the reader does. Chapters from the points of view of Charlotte and Iris, who face more ordinary challenges, provide realistic respite from the drama. The second half of the novel loses momentum. Leavitt's evident determination to keep the plot tidy and tie up loose ends detracts from the initial willingness to confront ambiguity that makes the first half so bold. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

The new novel from an established chronicler of family crises explores secrets and bonds connecting two orphaned sisters and the very distantly related woman who raised them.Charlotte Gold is the serious older sibling, characterized by shyness and smarts; Lucy is 18 months younger, less academic but prettier and a live wire. Orphaned when Lucy is 5, the sisters find a new home in Waltham, Massachusetts, with Iris, who they think is their aunt though in fact shes their half sister. Leavitts (Family, 2014, etc.) 11th novel reconfigures some themes familiar from her recent workparenting, disappearance, deathinto a solid, sympathetic tale with few surprises except when it strays into thriller territory. Despite differing natures, all three women share the experience of isolationCharlotte when she takes up her scholarship to Brandeis only to find herself lonely and anxious; Lucy when she absconds at age 16 with a teacher, William, and settles into a numbingly solitary routine in a remote corner of Pennsylvania; and Iris in the early days of her impulsive marriage to a kindly soldier with a secret. They all take turns in the spotlight, but its Charlotte who eventually comes to the fore as she explores the enigma of her sisters actions, connecting in the process with Patrick, Lucys only friend in Pennsylvania and a man with a past. Leavitt does a confident, efficient job of assembling her characters and moving them along their trajectories, yet theres a sense of mechanical accomplishment to it all. Her real fascination is with sifting inner landscapes, tracking the suffering and fulfillment of her ensemble. Everything else (including the early 1970s setting) reads like a means to an end. A capable, readable, empathetic novel, yet its impact is minimal. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

After their parents died, Lucy and Charlotte faced the world on their own, and Charlotte became very protective of her little sister. When Lucy runs away with her high-school teacher, Charlotte feels betrayed and resentful of the burden of responsibility she has felt for Lucy through their adolescence. After tragedy strikes, she will once more bear the burden to find out the truth about what has happened to Lucy. The novel starts in 1969, as the era of peace and free love is being ushered out amid Vietnam, Kent State, and the Manson murders. Leavitt skillfully weaves these events into the fabric of the story, and as an age of innocence is left behind, so, too, do the sisters find their lives unraveling into something darker and sadder than ever expected. 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).--Sexton, Kathy Copyright 2016 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

CAROLINE LEAVITT'S NOVELS often Start off with a bizarre bang, putting the reader in an instant chokehold. Two women separately fleeing their families collide in an accident on a foggy highway, and only one survives - then falls in love with the dead woman's husband. A man meets a psychic in New York, plans to marry her and brings his daughter to meet her, but dies unexpectedly, leaving his fiancée and daughter to stitch up the tatters of what might have been their new life. In a Leavitt novel, people often have secrets; adoptions can go horribly wrong; the medical diagnosis is apt to be dire. And it all makes for dramatic - often absorbing - popular fiction. "Cruel Beautiful World" starts out no differently. We're in suburban Boston in 1969, and 16-year-old Lucy is in love with William, her 30-year-old high school teacher, who doesn't believe in grades ("Einstein flunked math") and hands out antiwar literature. On Page 1, we learn that they're having an affair and she's going to abandon her family (her sister, Charlotte, and her adoptive mother, Iris, who raised both girls after their parents died) to live with William in rural Pennsylvania. There she will polish her short stories, and he will start a new job at a school with no grades, no curriculum and no desks. Just, one presumes, a lot of beanbag chairs and Indian bedspreads. The catch is that Lucy must remain in hiding for two years until she turns 18 and can marry William. Oh, joy! After their departure, surprise : Charming Scamp William turns into Grumpy Feckless Hippie William. Upon arriving at their squalid, isolated quarters, he informs her that she's to care for their chickens (they came free with the house), grow their vegetables and prepare their meals. On a trip to the distant grocery store, she reaches for a packet of hamburger meat and William chides her: They are now vegetarians. She wants ice cream; he says they (really, she) can learn to make their own. He controls the cash. Months stretch into a year, and her dreams of a G.E.D. and his promise to teach her to drive are all postponed. The plot races through several breathtaking leaps and turns involving the truth about Lucy's parentage, her eventual return to the world through a job at a farm stand and her relationship with the young widower who owns the farm. Occasional references to the Manson family evoke the tense mood of the early 1970 s. Suffice it to say, things don't go well. William begins to grow violent and now keeps a gun in the house. Leavitt's novel has the tone of a family chronicle; her readers will expect to immerse themselves in her characters' domestic snarls and scandals - grief, love, betrayal, redemption, everything that goes into a popular, zesty page-turner. But there's a difference in "Cruel Beautiful World." Sure, there are the twisty and compelling touches, but the dark reality here is that William is a sexual predator who essentially kidnaps a girl and holds her in seclusion, a hippie Ariel Castro who sexually enslaves his former pupil. Recently, the news has been full of stories about children who have been raped, even murdered, and at first I wrote off my aversion to "Cruel Beautiful World" as a timing issue. But the rest of the novel - with its reams of psych-speak dialogue ("You have to let it go - you have to open yourself up") and Leavitt's repositioning of William as a victim suddenly worthy of pity - seemed mawkish. And that may be the most shocking and bizarre aspect of all. A 16-year-old student falls dangerously in love with her 30-year-old English teacher. ALEX KUCZYNSKI is the author of "Beauty Junkies."

Library Journal Review

It's 1969, and 16-year-old Lucy loves dangly earrings, hippie bell-bottoms, and Love's Baby Soft shampoo for her golden curls. But the naïve sophomore hates high school with a passion. Her charismatic, hip English teacher William makes it bearable, seeing potential in her creative writing and making her feel special. They become intimate, and Lucy is titillated by sneaking around. When his antiestablishment, antiwar stance runs afoul of the school administration, William takes a job at an alternative school in rural Pennsylvania, and Lucy runs off with him. Discovering Lucy's farewell note, Iris, her elderly adoptive mother, and Lucy's straitlaced older sister, Charlotte, immediately call the police, only to be met with indifference. Leavitt's (Is This Tomorrow; Pictures of You) 12th novel tracks Lucy's experience, from her immediate misgivings upon seeing the remote, dilapidated house that William rented, to her loneliness, frustration, and growing awareness of William's increasing paranoia, all chronicled in her journal. From Charlotte's perspective, we see the terrible impact Lucy's disappearance has on her and her mother. VERDICT Overall, this is a compelling exploration of love and loyalty, which could have been made perfect with a shade more Vietnam-era context. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/16; eight-city tour; library marketing.]-Christine Perkins, Whatcom Cty. Lib. Syst., Bellingham, WA © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.