Book Review: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

beautiful-worldSet in the early 1970s against the specter of the Manson girls, when the peace and love movement begins to turn ugly, this is the story of a runaway teenager’s disappearance and her sister’s quest to discover the truth.

Caroline Leavitt is at her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.

It’s 1969, and sixteen-year-old Lucy is about to run away with a much older man to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte’s youth has been marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into nightmare.

With gorgeous prose and indelible characters, Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, and what happens when you’re responsible for things you can’t fix.


I decided to read this book based on a recommendation by my blogging friend, Annie (The Misstery). What appealed to me was the setting. I like books set in the 60s. Luckily, I was able to get it as an ARC from NetGalley.

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a story about three women at different stages of their lives. Lucy and Charlotte are sisters living with their elderly aunt, Iris. The story starts out with the three women living together and we get to experience their relationship as a family. This is a close knit family although there is some disconnect .Soon afterwards, Lucy decided to run away with an older man leaving Iris and Charlotte struggling to cope with her departure.

The story is narrated from three main perspectives. We get to learn more about Lucy and her new life at the farm. We also learn about her relationship with the older man. I really liked Lucy. There was something so endearing about her despite her obvious flaws and irrationality. I really wanted things to work out for her so I found myself rooting for her. Iris is also another one of the narrators. Like Lucy, I liked this woman from the first page. With Iris narration, we get to learn about her past and present life. I can’t say much about her without spoiling the book but I really liked reading about her past. Charlotte is also another main narrator. Out of the three women, she is the one I connected with less and I don’t feel like I got to know her like the other two. She was quite remarkable though and it was nice to read about her especially in the final sections of the book. There are other minor narrators throughout the book who bring different angles to the story hence enriching it. All in all, all the characters are so well developed and relatable.

As I have mentioned, the book is set in the late 60s and early 70s. There is a lot that is mentioned about the time period. For instance, there a number of mentions of the Manson’s murders. I like how the author brought this angle without shifting the focus from the main narrative. The author describes the time period so vividly that I could visualize it. She describes the dressing, the floral patterns, bell bottoms (those pants were so cool) and miniskirts/dresses. She even mentions the afros. The Vietnam War is also featured in the story in time of students’ strikes, drafting of young men into the military. However, it is not a dominant theme so we only get glimpses of it through the characters. I liked the atmospheric setting, really took me back to that period and I could even hear Motown playing in the background as I interacted with the characters. I also learned about free love through the book.

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt is a wonderful, well-written story. It tackles different themes of love, family, war and grief. This book took me on an emotional roller-coaster. At the middle of the book something happened (no spoilers) that forced me to take a break to recover from the shock. I like connecting with a story emotionally and I was able to do this with this book. I recommend it to everyone who enjoys this genre. If you are looking for a good story set in the 60/70s then you should also read it. Honestly, I think this could be a book for everyone. I can’t even find the right words to describe it. It is beautiful, enchanting, compelling, haunting…. It has all the elements that make a book fascinating. The memorable, well-developed characters and well narrated story in such an atmospheric setting is what made this a 5 star rating for me.

NetGalley and Algonquin Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

About Caroline Leavitt

Leavitt.jpgCaroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You (Algonquin Books), which. Pictures of You was on the Best Books of the Year lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, The Providence Journal, Bookmarks and Kirkus Reviews. It was also a Costco Pennie’s Pick. Is This Tomorrow was long listed for the Main Readers Prize, a WNBA Reading group Choice, A San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick/Editor’s Choice, a Jewish Book Club Pic and the winner of an Audiofile Earphones Award.

The winner of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant, a second prize winner in Goldenberg Fiction Prize, A Sundance Screenwriting Lab Finalist, a Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship Finalist and a National Magazine Award Nominee, Leavitt is a senior writing instructor at UCLA and Stanford online and a freelance manuscript consultant. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Psychology Today, Salon,More, and more. She has been featured on The Today Show and profiled in the New York Times.”

You can reach her through Please also visit her blog at