...a seductive page-turner that ripples with an undercurrent of suspense and is fueled by the foibles of the human heart ... Leavitt traces the loneliness, isolation, and forced dependence of Lucy’s circumstances as William, who gradually sours on the new school, becomes more and more controlling ... Though the novel unspools with the edge of a psychological thriller, read too quickly for plot and one might miss these nuanced moments of insight, which seed Leavitt’s prose like tips of crocuses pushing up through snow. Best to slow down and savor.
Leavitt paints her characters with deep flaws and yet hugely redeeming qualities. The writing is rich and real and provocative, with scenes that bring tears of sadness and of joy as we watch America struggle with its growing pains and wonder if our young protagonist will make it through her own.
...there are twisty and compelling touches, but the dark reality here is that William is a sexual predator who essentially kidnaps a girl and holds her in seclusion ... the news has been full of stories about children who have been raped, even murdered, and at first I wrote off my aversion to Cruel Beautiful World as a timing issue. But the rest of the novel — with its reams of psych-speak dialogue and Leavitt’s repositioning of William as a victim suddenly worthy of pity — seemed mawkish.
The omniscient narrator of Cruel Beautiful World is the work of an accomplished fiction writer with 10 novels to her name ... However, as this narrator keeps moving from Lucy to Charlotte to Iris to Patrick to William, recounting back story after back story, the emotional intensity of the book becomes a bit muffled. Five is too many. With this merry-go-round narrative style, neither the tragic climax nor the chain of disappointments that follows hits quite as hard as they should. Still, Cruel Beautiful World is a page-turner — recommended reading for those reveling in the current literary ’60s revival.
Ms. Leavitt’s novel is a far more accessible and relatable work [than The Girls], due in large part to her compassionate treatment of her characters ... the author creates such believable and tenderly rendered characters that any lack of nuance is pushed aside by the powerful journeys of these women ... Cruel Beautiful World isn’t a perfect book: a subplot involving a grief-stricken farmer exacerbates the novel’s subtlety issues, and occasionally jarring anachronisms disrupt the novel’s setting. Luckily, the story moves along at a breathless clip that tempers the intrusiveness of these issues.
[Leavitt] once again skillfully animates themes of disappearance, abandonment and loss ... As the narrative rushes forward, Leavitt’s prose sometimes lapses into cliche. At other times, repeated beats dilute the impact of the narrative ... the author’s storytelling strengths excel when she telescopes onto the nuanced relationships at the heart of this novel. With the affair between Lucy and William, Leavitt does an excellent job of depicting the shifting love and loyalty that quickly transforms into something twisted and toxic ... Leavitt successfully reminds the reader of the ephemeral and lifelong nature of sisterly love, and how it always leaves behind a certain kind of sadness and beauty.
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 ... 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.
While essential to the plot, tangential storylines read as separate points along a path to the conclusion, digressions rather than an integral part of the central narrative. What the book suffers is the lack of a strong point of view. Whose story is it? ... Leavitt’s descriptive writing and insights into human frailty stand out in the book’s strongest sections. But these passages are not enough to overcome the novel’s contrived and unconvincing ending.
...a breathtaking novel about the lengths people will go to to discover and recover love ... It is about what you do when that part of yourself is ripped away, what you do in order to move on, to find solace and forgiveness and start living again. Leavitt’s story is that invitation to start again.