Author Caroline Leavitt took an event that happened to a high school classmate of hers as a jumping-off point for her incredibly riveting novel “Cruel Beautiful World”. Charlotte and Lucy were just young girls when their parents died tragically and they went to live with a distant older relative Iris.
In reality Iris is their much older half-sister, a fact Iris conceals from the girls. Iris never had children of her own and she grew to love the girls. Set in the late 1960’s, during the time of great social and political upheaval, Leavitt drops the reader into the time of hippies and free love and the frightening Manson murders that gripped the nation.
When Lucy is sixteen, she falls in love with William, the cool teacher at her school. She runs away with William to a dilapidated old farmhouse, where William gets a job teaching at a school that basically has no rules, while Lucy stays hidden at the farmhouse, all alone except for the chickens.
Lucy’s disappearance devastates Iris and Charlotte, who is ready to go off to college. Iris fears that something terrible has happened to Lucy, and the police are of no help as they tell her that so many teenager girls are running off nowadays and that she will probably return.
Charlotte goes off to college, which is much more difficult than she thought. She excelled in high school, but at college, the classes are much harder and she spends all her time studying. She has no real friends and travels home frequently to check on Iris.
Iris is getting on in age and eventually she must face the fact that for her own safety, she has to move out of her home and into an assisted living facility. Leavitt does a beautiful job with the character of Iris, and some of the most compelling parts of the story belong to her.
We see her as a young woman during WWII, who falls in love and marries the man of her dreams, a young soldier. She believes she will finally have the simple, happy life she longs for, but a secret builds a wall between her and her husband.
When Iris is in the assisted living facility, she is unhappy. She mourns the loss of her freedom to choose when to eat and what to eat, and the ability to go where she wants, when she wants.
Lucy’s life is not turning out the way she had hoped either. William has isolated her, and she isn’t even allowed to let her aunt and sister know that she is alive for fear that William will be arrested.
What Lucy believed to be a romantic life ahead turns into a nightmare. William is gone all day at work, and when he comes home he is unhappy because his teaching job is not what he thought it would be. She is expected to cook dinner, but William insists on a very specific all-natural diet and Lucy doesn’t know how to cook.
One day Lucy takes a walk and ends up at a farm stand. There are lots of people there and she befriends the owner, Patrick, who gives Lucy a job. Lucy is overjoyed at having someplace to go and something to do.
Patrick is kind to her, and he is interested in what she thinks, something William is not. Patrick is hiding out from his past too, a tragic loss that he has not yet overcome.
Halfway through the book something happens that changes the lives of all the characters. It is a real blow to the reader as well as to all of the characters, something that made me literally gasp out loud.
By that point we are so invested in these characters and their stories, we feel like we know them as real people. Leavitt has written terrific books, “Pictures of You” and “Is This Tomorrow” among them, but “Cruel Beautiful World” is her best book yet. She has taken her writing to an entirely new level, and she has garnered so much deserved praise for this one.
“Cruel Beautiful World” is the simply the best novel I have read in a long time, and if you enjoy a story that you can lost in, this is the one for you. The characters are simply unforgettable and I give it my highest recommendation.