Review: Leavitt's 'Cruel Beautiful World' depicts a fractured family and the '60s

Published Oct. 5, 2016

Teenage girls run away from home every day. Back in the late 1960s, when Caroline Leavitt's Cruel Beautiful World is set, they were running away even more, donning their love beads and bell bottoms and hopefully sticking out a thumb on the side of the road, bound (at least theoretically) for Greenwich Village or Haight-Ashbury.

Leavitt's new novel, her 11th (after bestsellers Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You), focuses on what happens to one young girl who runs away — and the impact of her departure on the family she leaves behind.

Lucy Gold does not just set out hitchhiking, though. She has a plan. At age 16, at the end of the school year, she leaves her comfortable home in a Boston suburb and runs away with her 30-year-old English teacher.

William Lallo is the kind of teacher just about every girl gets a crush on at least once: the cool teacher. In 1969, that means the long-haired one in jeans who moves the desks out of rows and rearranges them in an equalizing circle, the one who refers knowingly to the political turmoil of the times, the one who really seems to listen to the kids.

He certainly listens to lively, pretty blond Lucy. She's an indifferent student, but his encouraging comments on her papers thrill her, and before you can say "bad idea" she's sneaking out to meet him at his apartment.

Leavitt gets the reader inside Lucy's head so that we understand the mixture of rebellion and desire that makes William's plan so enticing. They'll run away, he says, cut all ties (although his ties to his teaching job have already been cut, whether he likes it or not). They don't need anyone else, just each other. It will be so romantic.

He finds a new job in a tiny Pennsylvania town and rents a house on acreage out in the country, complete with chickens that scare Lucy half to death. They can get back to the land, he says, commune with nature — and lay low until Lucy turns 18 and their relationship is no longer criminal.

As that idyll turns ever more isolating, and William more controlling, Leavitt builds suspense by intercutting Lucy's story with those of her sister, Charlotte, and Iris, the woman who raised them. Charlotte is the older sister, the sober and responsible one, and she has been Lucy's protector since their parents died in a car crash when the girls were barely school age. They were sent to live with Iris, a relative of their father's. A childless widow, she was as unprepared for the transition as the children were, but by the time Charlotte and Lucy are teenagers, they're a family.

Lucy leaves Charlotte and Iris a note telling them not to worry (as if), but then there's nothing. Their initial shock and panic turn to frustration and dull ache as months pass. The police don't take teenage runaways very seriously, and in that era before the internet and smartphones, it was much easier for people to drop off the edge of the world. That's just what Lucy does.

Charlotte "told herself there were things she could do, like make sure that Lucy's bedroom window was open every night so that if Lucy came home, she could easily climb back in." Months pass, and Charlotte starts college at Brandeis but struggles to concentrate, moves in and out of unhappy relationships, her little sister never far from her mind.

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In a long section of the novel, Leavitt unspools Iris' backstory, not only revealing exactly what her relationship to the girls is but giving us a fascinating account of her marriage during World War II to a man she hardly knew and how very strange and, in the end, satisfying that marriage turned out to be.

When Lucy's story takes a terrible turn, Charlotte and Iris grasp even more desperately for answers. Charlotte will forge an uneasy alliance with Patrick, a man who seems to be the only friend Lucy made in Pennsylvania and who is a sort of runaway himself.

Leavitt builds her story around characters who are warm and engaging but very much flawed. The 1960s setting provides a few unsettling details that murmur in the background — the Manson murders, the Kent State shootings — but this is essentially the timeless story of a family, one that's unorthodox and fractured but rings emotionally true.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.