Saturday, April 2, 2016

Book Review: "Cruel Beautiful World" by Caroline Leavitt

For 16-year-old Lucy Gold, life is about feeling love, passion, emotion. It's the late 1960s, and in her Boston suburb of Waltham, she thinks she's the only one with these kinds of feelings. Her older sister Charlotte is beautiful and smart, but would rather study and get good grades than pursue any kind of relationship, and her adoptive mother Iris is much older, so Lucy is sure she's never known love before either. It's so hard with no one understanding her, everyone writing off her difficulties with school, and no one expecting much from her.

Until she meets William. William is the coolest teacher in her high school, is the object of many of her classmates' romantic obsessions, with his longer hair and his laid-back manner. His unorthodox teaching methods win him praise with the students but anger the administration. It's not long before Lucy recognizes in William a kindred spirit, a romantic just like she is, and he encourages her creative writing and tells her she has talent to be a famous writer someday.

One day Lucy and William run away, to an isolated town in Pennsylvania, where he's landed a teaching job at a free school, which suits his teaching style. Because she is a minor and he is transporting her across state lines, Lucy has to leave without telling anyone where she is going. And while she enjoys living with William in their own little house, where she can write and cook and practice for the day she turns 18 and they can get married, she quickly tires of being alone every day, with William not allowing her to go anywhere or meet anyone.

Meanwhile, Charlotte and Iris are devastated by Lucy's disappearance and try to figure out where she could have gone, what could have happened to her. Charlotte, in particular, finds herself unable to focus on her schoolwork or meeting people, because all she can do is wonder what happened to her sister, for whom she has always served as protector. Was there some sign that she or Iris missed? Would she know in her heart if Lucy were in danger? The loss, the uncertainty weighs on them more than they could imagine.

Caroline Leavitt is a tremendously talented writer, and she has a particular knack for capturing emotions. (If you've never read her work before, I'd definitely encourage you to read Pictures of You.) Cruel Beautiful World is not only about love and loss, but it's about finding the strength to pick yourself up and rebuild your life. It's a story of realizing you can't blame yourself for everything that goes wrong even if you've always been the protector. And it's also a story about the need to allow yourself a few glimmers of hope.

I thought this was an absolutely beautiful, emotional book. I loved Leavitt's characters and would have enjoyed spending more time with them. She really captured the dichotomy of spirit and responsibility that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the fear that many felt after the Manson Family murders. I just needed to see how she tied her story together, so I'll admit I woke up in the very early hours of the morning to finish reading it. I was pleased it didn't leave me a total emotional mess, but I was moved and I can't quite get this book out of my mind hours later. And that's the sign of a great one.

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This means so, so much to me. Caroline Leavitt