Review: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

A poignant story of love, family, grief and regret. 

Genre: General Fiction

Following the death of their parents, Lucy and Charlotte are sent across the country to live with their much older half-sister, Iris. Having lost her husband, Iris is glad for a second chance at a family and does her best to provide a happy home for the girls.

However, in the summer of 1969, sixteen-year-old Lucy runs away, leaving no clue as to where she’s gone, and Charlotte and Iris are left to question how well they really know their sister and how they will manage to move forward with their lives without her.

Meanwhile, Lucy is making a new life for herself in rural Pennsylvania with her former English teacher, William. But while William goes to work and makes new friends, Lucy is forced to stay home for fear of someone learning of their relationship and reporting William to the police. William won’t let her learn to drive, or get a job or even publish the short stories he encourages her to write. Alone in the isolated farmhouse they rent together, Lucy watches news clips of the Manson family and grows increasingly unsettled and afraid, and her thoughts turn to her sisters and the life she left behind.

Cruel Beautiful World (Algonquin Books, Oct. 2016) is a poignant story of love, family, grief and regret.

I’d been looking forward to reading Cruel Beautiful World for months. I loved the premise, I loved the cover and I was sure I was going to love the book itself. And for the first half of the story, I remained convinced that would be the case. The characters were strong, the prose evocative and the plot simmered with rising tension as Lucy’s relationship with William became increasingly claustrophobic.

But for me, the major crisis came too soon and the story lost momentum and focus. The writing isn’t as tight in the second half and the dialogue is melodramatic in places. A big part of the story explores how the characters deal with grief, and I wondered if the structure was intended to reflect that, with the story’s trajectory being derailed and losing its former pace and purpose. If so, very clever, and, in theory, I like it. But in reality, my interest started to wane.

I also wonder if I’m being entirely fair. Part of the reason I was so enthusiastic to read Cruel Beautiful World, was that it sounded somewhat similar to Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls. Both are set in the US in 1969 and feature young female protagonists who are lured away from their family by charismatic older figures as they begin to explore their sexuality and seek independence. Both novels also draw inspiration from the Manson family and ask questions about love, belonging, regret and blame. I *loved* The Girls and couldn’t help making comparisons as I read. It’s unfortunate the two titles were released so close together. I almost feel like there’s only room for one summer of ’69 book in any given year, and for me, The Girls is it for 2016. That said, I know some readers found The Girls somewhat unrestrained, so Cruel Beautiful World might be more their speed.

For me, Cruel Beautiful World was a solid three-star read. A contemplative story of love, loss and healing.


See Cruel Beautiful World on Goodreads and purchase through BooktopiaBook Depository or Amazon.

Thank you to Algonquin Books for providing a copy of Cruel Beautiful World in exchange for an honest review.

Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up thirteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!

—Margot XO 


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