Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World sounded like a good candidate for escapist reading…a story about sisters, seduction, family, secrets. What’s not to like, right? I am pretty sure I haven’t read anything by Leavitt before, so my expectation level was at zero, and I admit this one stayed in my TBR pile for a couple of months. But, since the official publication date isn’t til October, I guess I kept thinking I had plenty of time. Once I got into it, the story had me hooked, and I pretty much read nonstop til I was finished. Some might call this one Chick lit, or Soap Opera…but it is borderline thriller with family saga thrown in for good measure, and I admit I liked it way more than I expected I was going to.
There are three central characters, including Iris, who learned at an early age about the profound impact sadness could have on a family when her father abandoned the family to run off with a waitress. They never quite recovered, and Leavitt describes the emotions beautifully: “Iris saw how her mother suffered, how her sadness seeped through the walls, held there like a stain.” Iris yearned to be happily married, and had dreams of travel and adventure…but soon after she married, the marriage turned out not to be at all what she dreamed of, and she and her husband ended up living as friends for years. Just when it looked like Iris would be able to start enjoying her own life, she is asked to take in two young orphaned sisters, who are coming into the whole teenage experience in the 1960s and early 70s (which Leavitt incorporates into the story beautifully).
The crux of the story involves the impact of a somewhat impulsive decision made by 16-year-old Lucy, who runs away to another state to live off the land with an older guy. This decision makes sense to her at the time, but is devastating to both her older sister Charlotte and Iris, especially when Lucy’s guy refuses to allow her to have any contact with them. There is just the right amount of creepiness in the relationship between Lucy and her guy to make the reader suspect things aren’t going to turn out well…and the story is spooled out deftly, with mounting suspense and surprises along the way.
There are tons of things going on, with lots of secrets revealed, some suspense, and plenty of characters to meet along the way The ending was a tiny bit contrived, but made sense given the overall tone and Leavitt’s style. It’s not heavy literature, but it’s an engrossing story with lots of topics for discussion, so would be a good pick for a book club that isn’t into heavy lifting. With thanks to NetGalley and Algonquin for an advance reading copy in exchange for my honest review, I give this one four enthusiastic stars (it would be five if this were one of my favorite genres, and for many readers, it will definitely be a five-star read!).