Cruel Beautiful World (Paperback)
Algonquin Books, 9781616207373, 384pp.
Publication Date: August 8, 2017
October 2016 Indie Next List
— Pamela Klinger-Horn (E), Excelsior Bay Books, Excelsior, MN
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“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
“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
About the Author
Praise For Cruel Beautiful World: A Novel…
—Lily King, author of Euphoria
“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.”
—Sara Gruen, author of At the Water’s Edge
"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. This is the kind of coming-of-age novel for which readers yearn: we witness the emotional and spiritual evolution a sixteen-year-old girl while American society, in the early 1970s, seems to devolve all around her. Like the era it represents, Cruel Beautiful World is at times hopeful and nihilistic, beautiful and savage, mesmerizing and dangerous."
—Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy
“Two sisters — impulsive Lucy and sensible Charlotte — make decisions that will haunt the rest of their lives. Set in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, Cruel Beautiful World is a riveting 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.”
—Christina Baker-Kline, author of Orphan Train
“Nuanced and engrossing.”
“The war in Vietnam, the Charles Manson murder trial and other touchstones of that era provide the backdrop for Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt’s moving novel about three women connected by fate and a spate of tragic deaths. As in her other novels, including Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, Leavitt expertly draws us into the stormy lives of her female characters and deftly narrates their coming-of-age in a world in which women’s roles are changing.”
—The Washington Post
“The author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You once again skillfully animates themes of disappearance, abandonment and loss. With Cruel Beautiful World, Leavitt successfully reminds the reader of the ephemeral and lifelong nature of sisterly love, and how it always leaves behind a certain kind of sadness and beauty.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“From its first sentence, Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Cruel Beautiful World, draws the reader into a seductive page-turner that ripples with an undercurrent of suspense and is fueled by the foibles of the human heart. Though the novel unspools with the edge of a psychological thriller, read too quickly for plot and one might miss these nuanced moments of insight, which seed Leavitt’s prose like tips of crocuses pushing up through snow. Best to slow down and savor.”
—The Boston Globe
“Leavitt paints her characters with deep flaws and yet hugely redeeming qualities. The writing is rich and real and provocative, with scenes that bring tears of sadness and of joy as we watch America struggle with its growing pains and wonder if our young protagonist will make it through her own.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“…a plot-driven exploration of how love can impel one to terrible depths and lofty heights. … the story moves along at a breathless clip…a compulsive yet touching page-turner. …a devastating portrayal of how at any age, we alone are responsible for how we let our love for the people in our lives affect us. Too few books truly challenge our own hearts, no matter how hard they may aim for them; Cruel Beautiful World hits its target.”
“Caroline Leavitt knows how to pull a reader into the page. …an intense page-turner… Leavitt is on to something here — the vulnerability of young girls, sexually advanced, perhaps, but naïve when it comes to human nature. The novel reminds us, too, of our own peril. Oh, how thin the line between good fortune and tragedy; how tenuous our hold on a safe haven from life’s calamities.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Leavitt builds her story around characters who are warm and engaging but very much flawed. The 1960s setting provides a few unsettling details that murmur in the background — the Manson murders, the Kent State shootings — but this is essentially the timeless story of a family, one that's unorthodox and fractured but rings emotionally true.”
—Tampa Bay Times
“This hauntingly brilliant novel is one no reader should miss this fall. It speaks to one of the deepest human fears: What if you can’t repair the damage you caused? When 16-year-old Lucy wants to run away from her rural Pennsylvanian life, she risks ruining not only her future, but her sister’s as well. A vibrant portrait on the intricacies of family and the consequences of abandoning responsibility, Cruel Beautiful World will remind you of the value found in familial bonds.”
“Set in the same tumultuous period as Woodstock and the Manson family murders, Caroline Leavitt's astute family drama in Cruel Beautiful World is as vintage as a pair of bell-bottoms and as timeless as the bond between sisters. Leavitt (Is This Tomorrow) perfectly captures the essence of the teen years adults tend to look back on fondly through the lens of nostalgia, reminding the reader of the uncertainty, insecurity, naive expectations and broken dreams that came with growing up. Deeply resonant and quietly powerful, Cruel Beautiful World has the heart-pounding moments of a thriller and the heart-warming moments of a perfect coming-of-age story. In her 11th novel, Caroline Leavitt weaves an absorbing story of family, love and tragedy set at the dawn of the 1970s.”
“For fans of Emma Cline’s bestselling debut, The Girls, Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World offers another opportunity to spend time in the wild, off-kilter America of the late 1960s, the period when peace-and-love idealism began to curdle into something far less wholesome, a period reigned over in the collective imagination by Charles Manson. Leavitt’s title — and lovely period book cover — get it just right. Cruel Beautiful World is a page-turner — recommended reading for those reveling in the current literary ’60s revival.”
“Cruel Beautiful World is a masterwork, a book that is so well-crafted and emotionally resonant that the reader will be loathe to hand it off to the next willing reader until he or she has read it over again. Congratulations to Caroline Leavitt for an upstanding and inspiring literary masterpiece.”
“Cruel Beautiful World hits the sweet-spot between popular and literary fiction with finely honed writing, complexity of character motives, and enough guilt and secrecy to sustain the page-turning suspense.”
—New York Journal of Books
“This haunting examination of the duty we have to family—and the irreparable consequences we abandon it—will leave every mother moved.”
“Cruel Beautiful World is a mesmerizing story about love, family, and obsession.”
“Part character drama, part thriller, Leavitt’s eleventh outing will keep you captivated.”
A “compelling exploration of love and loyalty.”
“Leavitt's most accomplished book yet, Cruel Beautiful World, is a seamless triumph of storytelling that follows an unusual family through a fraught and shapeshifting century. The edges and complications of their individual natures lead them towards fatal or redeemable choices. Some make it and some do not in this cruel, beautiful world.”
—Gail Godwin, author of Flora
“I was mesmerized by Caroline Leavitt’s new, breathtaking novel. She has spun a masterful web of seduction and loyalty, infatuation and love. At the same time Leavitt reveals how porous the line can be between truth and lies and how so much that happens between us is a matter of perspective. It is hard to read this novel and not think of Lolita and also of Dan Chaon’s psychological thriller, Await Your Reply. But this is more than a dark tale of predator and his victim. It is also about family and friendship, of sisters and that ties that bind. And in this end this poignant and complex novel is a story about how we tell stories and the narratives that become our lives.”
—Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace
“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.”
—J. Courtney Sullivan, author of The Engagements
“Cruel Beautiful World is a stunning novel about life, real life, the sort in which mistakes can bring unfair consequences and family loyalty is a source of tremendous grace. Leavitt is a magician at creating unforgettable characters, and the two sisters at the heart of this tale will stay with me in all their complicated humanity. A brave book, and a powerfully moving one.”
—Robin Black, author of Life Drawing
“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. Peopled with gorgeously flawed characters, Caroline Leavitt's newest novel is a wonder of triumph and tragedy.”
—Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, New York Times bestselling author of Bittersweet and June
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
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. 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, such as a third-person omniscient point of view?
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 happened, and why?
4. How does the time period in which the novel is set—the late ’60s and early ’70s, lend itself to the themes that appear in Cruel Beautiful World, especially in terms of love, family, and a rapidly changing era? If the story were set in contemporary times, how do you think it would it differ?
5. In her novel, Leavitt investigates family—what it means to be part of one, and the fluidity of what defines a family. Which of the families in Cruel Beautiful World seem to be the most successful, and why? What do you think Leavitt is saying about the nature and importance of family?
6. An underlining theme of Cruel Beautiful World is about how we can control some things, we can prevent others, and some things we simply have to let go of. Do you agree with the author’s position? Why or why not?
7. There are so many “what ifs” in Cruel Beautiful World, and characters seem to constantly wonder how life might have been if things had been different. Given the situations the characters find themselves in, do you think they could have made different decisions that would have changed the outcome, or would everything have had to play out just as it did? Do some of the characters seem to feel trapped by their circumstances? If so, which ones, and do you think they could have done more to change their lives?
8. The shadow of Charles Manson and the girls who made up his “family” seems to provide a kind of backdrop to the book. Why is Lucy so affected by the distant characters, especially Manson’s girls? Do you feel that she is similar to them? Why do you think the fascination with these young women continues to this day?
9. Leavitt writes about many different kinds of love, and as one early reviewer of Cruel Beautiful World stated, the novel “is all about love until it’s not.” What do you think this reviewer meant? In writing about the many faces of love, from dangerous love to first love to grieving love to companionship love and even to late-in-life love, what statement do you think the author is making about love in general?
10. Leavitt has said in interviews that she likes to have what she calls “never-ending story” endings, where nothing is neatly tied up, and the reader is left to wonder what is going to happen next. Did you feel the ending of Cruel Beautiful World was satisfying? What do you imagine will happen next in the lives of these characters? What questions for you were unanswered?