I’ve been reading Caroline Leavitt’s books a long time and always enjoy them even if they are occasionally a tad dramatic. Cruel Beautiful World takes place in 1969 when a 16-year-old girl runs off with her charismatic, idealistic, liberal 30-year-old teacher. Not only does running away with a man twice your age and dropping out of school never seem like a good idea, he turns out to be quite controlling, setting them up in a rural location so he can teach an “alternative” school, decides they are going to become vegetarians and expects her to stay at the house nearly 24/7 since she does not have a car to take care of the chickens, make dinner and write. Predictably, she is rather bored and eventually takes to walking so far she comes to a farm stand where she meets another nearly 30-year-old man who thankfully is nice to her and gives her a job, which she keeps secret from her boyfriend and a bike which she stashes in the nearby woods.
The story switches between Lucy, the runaway, her college-aged sister Charlotte and their caregiver, Iris who turns out to be more closely related to them than they thought, and even Patrick the farmer and William the creep. I really liked Iris’ story a lot, it takes place during WWI mostly, which is a time you don’t really read too much about in casual fiction and her story of her marriage is a mostly sweet one, with a bit of sadness. Lucy’s story takes an unfortunate turn when William brings a gun into the house and the last quarter of the book deals with Charlotte (the “good girl”) dealing with the aftermath. William’s version of events is told near the end and it is difficult to know what is true, Lucy is a dramatic teenager and so far we have only seen things from her point of view which is vastly different than William’s. I assume the story is somewhat closer to the middle but obviously William is a predator so I lean towards believing Lucy over him who seems to be able to lie or rationalize anything he does. Ultimately it is the story of two troubled people; a girl adrift during a turbulent time in history and a man who “falls in love” with her who can’t keep a job, is a horrible teacher and lech.
The writing is excellent and detailed without being overly flowery and the story unfolds at a natural pace although I was legit surprised at the turn it took when Lucy decides to call her sister and leave. Quite a few people fail this girl, including her sister Charlotte who is bizarrely fixated on her internship, and the consequences were not good.