Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

I won’t pretend otherwise, I was lured by the cover of Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World. It was something about the  muted retro colours, the curl of smoke, the lazy dreaminess it conveyed. But I postponed reading it, purely because of all the hype surrounding Emma Cline’s The Girls – based on the blurbs alone, there seemed to be many similarities between the books – set in the late 60s/early 70s; mentions of the Manson murders; teenage girls losing their way; peace, love and communes; hitch-hiking and breaking rules… In fact, the books are very different.

In Cruel Beautiful World, Leavitt tells the story of sixteen-year-old Lucy, who runs away from Boston to live with her school teacher in rural Pennsylvania. She leaves behind her sister, Charlotte, and Iris, the elderly woman who has raised the sisters.

Leavitt had the opportunity to create a rich sense of time and place – studious, conservative Charlotte and free-spirited Lucy against a backdrop of conscription for the Vietnam War, student riots, free love and peace rallies. Yet despite some historical and cultural references – such as the Manson murders being used to justify Lucy’s fear of being on her own – I didn’t feel immersed in the time and worse, a few sloppy details completely jarred. For example –

“Last night, she hadn’t been able to find the TV remote and had almost given up watching a show…”

Perhaps technology takes longer to get to Australia but I’m fairly certain no one had TV remotes in 1969 (or if they did they were the ones attached to a cord).

I expected Leavitt’s writing style to be of a ‘contemporary literature’ nature. Instead, it was lighter, almost YA in tone, and in some parts, clumsy –

“Lucy walks through the school’s main entrance for the last time, keeping her head down. She’ll always remember this day. She’ll never forget it. Worry thumps in her head.”

Iris’s interesting backstory provides a high point and a few plot twists in the second half of the book kept me reading but overall, what began with promise, veered into a weak romance-and-mystery ending.

2/5 Didn’t meet my expectations.

I received my copy of Cruel Beautiful World from the publisher, Algonquin, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Lucy craves chocolate cake. I think this Chocolate Cloud Cake from Use Real Butter is a good match for dreamy Lucy.

cruel-beautiful-world-caroline-leavitt

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10 responses

  1. Ack, there’s nothing worse than when an author gets little historical detailing wrong. It throws the whole story off for me and it’s usually impossible to emmerse myself again. I’d also been eyeing this one because of that lovely cover but I think I’ll be giving this one a pass (and trying the cake instead). Lovely review though.

  2. 100% agree with you about this one. Especially about the time/place context…to the point that I felt the continual Manson references seemed forced and out of place b/c the rest of the time/setting never really came alive for me.

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