Review of Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt has been difficult for me to review. I finished it a few days ago, and since then, I’ve been ruminating on it.

In its essence, Cruel Beautiful World is a novel about family and love. But the horrible underside of humanity is afoot as well. Yes, it takes place during the same time as the Manson murders, but that isn’t the true specter that hangs over the characters’ psyches. The true roots of the novel’s conflict lie in the question: How well can we really know the ones we love?

The climax and denouement of Cruel Beautiful World answer this question two ways. Without giving you any spoilers, I’ll say that one represents the beautiful and one represents the cruel.

Plot-wise, Cruel Beautiful World kept me guessing, but it also made me think. The prose is full of detail and texture. Leavitt uses concrete imagery to convey a strong sense of time period and setting.

Check out this section of character description to see how Leavitt deftly weaves history into the narrative:

“Not only did he support the antiwar movement, but he’d marched in Boston a few months ago and even got to talk to Abbie Hoffman, who was there giving a speech. William wore a Not-So-Silent Spring button on his jacket lapel, a dot of yellow imprinted with an upraised red fist that held a sprig of greenery. ‘Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?’ he chanted, and then he told them the answer, writing on the board the Vietnam death toll for 1968—16,899—a number so staggeringly high that the kids shifted uneasily in their seats, because they knew there was a draft. The boys could be called up one day. Their lives could end, just like that. ‘Not if you resist the draft,’ William assured them. He draw a map of Canada on the blackboard and tapped the chalk on it. ‘Or go here,’” (Leavitt).

Holy characterization, Batman!

Over all, Cruel Beautiful World is not a book of easy answers. There is no good without the bad (and sometimes vice versa?). I recommend this book to readers who enjoy family novels with a tinge of darkness. Cruel Beautiful World is full of emotion. I think I cried at least twice, and my heart is as black as my coffee.

Disclaimer: I received a digital ARC copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


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