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. 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.
As soon as I started Cruel Beautiful World, I knew I had something very special in my hands. Caroline Leavitt had me at the first paragraph. The writing was beautiful and evocative, focusing on the small moments and gradually letting us know all the characters: Iris, Charlotte and Lucy. This is not a book full of action or twists and turns. Instead, this is similar to Miller’s Valley in the sense that they’re both novels about life, making you love the characters as if you had known them forever.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with the women of this book. Especially Iris. I adored the novel’s structure, pretty unique for what we usually read nowadays: loooong chapters (at first I thought there wouldn’t be any) revolving around just one character. Their past and their reasons, their feelings. This was especially satisfying when you read another chapter and you could see different events from various perspectives. I’ve always enjoyed that.
The plot… well, let’s say it’s simply about life. Lucy runs away from home with her high-school teacher and her family worries. Then we get to know about her new life in the country, her relationship with William, Charlotte’s life at uni and Iris past and connection to both sisters. It wasn’t predictable because it didn’t follow a traditional pattern, and I found that super refreshing.
Even though it’s 1969 and the Manson murders are briefly mentioned, the book doesn’t really focus on that, although you can feel the “era” by the way the characters talk and behave. Small details, like the clothing and the hair styling. Idealistic teachers. Communes. I really wished I could travel back in time and experience at least a day in that decade.
There were some delightful surprises along the way and my heart broke in various scenes. I was so captivated by the book and its characters that I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Don’t you love when that happens? That you don’t even realize you’re reading a book because it feels like the story is playing in your mind. The details were so vivid I could picture everything, especially Iris and Lucy’s storylines.
In my opinion, the final part was the weakest one, mostly because some of the story was left open to interpretation and I guess I wanted a bit more closure. But I adored this book anyway. Cruel Beautiful World was a beautiful, moving book that I wished had been longer. I deeply recommend it to everyone.
Algonquin Books, 2016
I received a copy of this e-book in exchange for an honest review.