Cruel Beautiful World: A Novel

  • By Caroline Leavitt
  • Algonquin Books
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Bryana Fern
  • November 29, 2016

An intricately interwoven story about secrets and the unbreakable bond of sisterhood.

Cruel Beautiful World: A Novel

Caroline Leavitt is no stranger to character-driven stories about people who grow apart and who try to drift back together. She writes deftly of grief and loss, of how the ever-looming past collides with the present, and of family relationships that stretch the comfortable notion of love.

Cruel Beautiful World is a breathtaking novel about the lengths people will go to to discover and recover love. Sisters Lucy and Charlotte Gold have been through a lot together, and they’ve cared for one another in ways only two inseparable sisters can. Charlotte is the older child, the typical perfectionist who takes on impossible responsibility, then doubts herself at every turn. Pushing herself harder with every challenge, she’ll do just about anything to protect her little sister, Lucy.

Lucy is the beautiful one, the wild one, who lives life passionately and leaps before thinking. The sisters are two sides of a coin that cannot be split; isn’t that what we always think of ourselves and our better halves? Us against the world, just like always. Nothing will ever separate us. But something always does.

Still 16, Lucy runs away with her high-school teacher, William Lallo, a proponent of the free-spirit education system. He is an image of inspiration for Lucy, who is terrified of living at home for the rest of her life in the shadow of her straight-A sister. To Lucy, William is freedom. He encourages her in her writing, thinks she is mature for her age, and wants to start a life with her.

Against the backdrop of the Manson murders and the Vietnam protests, Lucy lets William sweep her away without a word of warning to Charlotte or Iris, their mother. But soon enough, Lucy’s notion of freedom closes in on her once she’s living in a rundown house across state lines.

Encouraged by William to work on her writing and domestic duties all day while he teaches in a local school, Lucy is forbidden to call home or leave the house for fear of being recognized. Only until she turns 18, William says, only until he can marry her, and then their real lives will begin. To Lucy, those two years will become a hellish game of waiting.

Charlotte, meanwhile, moves on with her life, attending college and, as a result, having to place Iris in a retirement home after her health takes a turn for the worse with Lucy’s disappearance. While Charlotte tries her best in college, never giving up hope that Lucy will return, Iris takes the narrative for a while, and we are invited into her past as a young Jewish girl with secrets during WWI. Iris longs to tell both of her daughters the truth about their origins, and wonders now if she will ever have the chance, given Lucy’s disappearance.

Lucy has been slipping out of the house more and more while William is gone, and she takes a job at a produce stand close to town, working for a young man named Patrick. Patrick suspects that Lucy’s story isn’t entirely true, but he sees she needs help and gives her the job. They become friends, and Lucy finds a hidden picture of Patrick with a girl who he refuses to talk about.

Iris isn’t the only one with secrets. Who is this mystery girl?

With the passage of time, Lucy clings to Patrick more as William becomes unstable, as he loses his teaching job, as he grows more impatient with her requests to move to the city, to contact her family. What was once her dream, her escape, is now unrecognizable.

In the midst of a sudden tragedy, Lucy’s life becomes the key to unlocking the other characters, and the story becomes Charlotte’s in a way that suggests it was really hers all along. Her journey is the one that becomes fully realized. “Control wasn’t freedom. It didn’t protect anyone, not you or the ones you loved, and if anything, it kept you from living. Sometimes you couldn’t fix things, you couldn’t make them better, and you had to live with that. It didn’t make you a bad person, the way she had thought. It made you human.”

Leavitt’s novel is about the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood, about the notion of “us against the world” that so many siblings understand at the basic level of our being. It is about what you do when that part of yourself is ripped away, what you do in order to move on, to find solace and forgiveness and start living again. Leavitt’s story is that invitation to start again.

Bryana Fern is from Tampa, Florida, where she received her undergraduate degree from the University of South Florida. She is a final-semester master’s student in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi where she teaches First Year Composition. Her work can be found in Sou'wester, USM Product, Red Mud Review, and Converge Magazine. One of her greatest ambitions in life is to return to London and see a Shakespeare tragedy in the Globe Theatre.

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