Book Review: Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt (2016)

October 21st, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Near perfection (~90%).

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Edelweiss/Library Thing. Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence.)

Once again, Iris thought, here she was, undone by love and mad with grief because of it. She had seen that poster in Lucy’s room, that ridiculous sentiment that you don’t belong to me, and I don’t belong to you, but if we find each other, it’s beautiful. What a stupid thing to say! Of course people belonged to each other. Love owned you. It kept you captive.

At sixty-seven, Iris Gold had long since given up on having children. She and her late husband Doug were never quite able; and, when she broached the idea of adopting, he insisted that he didn’t want to raise children who weren’t his own, biologically speaking.

But after a long and loving – if unconventional – marriage, Doug passed away in his sixties, felled in his beloved garden by a heart attack. Initially grief-stricken, Iris finally decided to carry on, as she always had done. Iris is nothing if not a survivor – a “tough old bird” – and this would hardly be the first time she’d had to fend for herself (the scandal!). So she decided to use the money Doug left her to travel to all the places she’d dreamed of, but had never been able to go: Paris. Spain. Istanbul.: “The whole world was opening for her.”

Days before she was to depart for her new life, an unexpected phone call threw Iris Gold one more curve ball – and not the last. A man from Iris’s long-buried past had died suddenly; he and his wife perished in a club fire, leaving their two little girls orphaned. Five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte had no other relatives. Reluctantly, Iris canceled her plans and took the girls in. In her golden years, Iris finally got the life she’d always wanted; or almost, anyway. She fell in love quickly and deeply, as did Lucy; Charlotte was a little slower to come around, but come around she did.

Now it’s eleven years later; Lucy is a sophomore in high school, and Charlotte will be headed off to college in a few short months. But Iris’s life is upended again, when Lucy disappears on the last day of school. Though Iris doesn’t know it yet – won’t, for many months – Lucy ran off to the Pennsylvania wilderness to be with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo. In her wake, Lucy leaves behind a cryptic note assuring Iris and Charlotte of her safety – and a family that’s tattered and struggling, but surviving as best it can.

Cruel Beautiful World is one damn cruel and beautiful book. The story is told from a multitude of perspectives: Iris, Lucy, and Charlotte, of course; but also Patrick, a small farmer/would-be-botanist/widower to whom Lucy reaches out for help; Patrick’s ex-in-laws, who blame Patrick for their daughter’s death; William’s mother Diana, who insists on her son’s innocence; and the rapist himself, William Lallo (more on that later). The story very quickly branches out and becomes much bigger than Lucy and William. While their story plays out in 1969 – against the backdrop of the Tate-Labianca murders and the Manson Family trial; the Vietnam War and Kent State – its roots lie in 1917, in World War I and a whirlwind romance between a twenty-seven-year-old, red-headed “spinster” and a soldier home on leave.

What initially drew me to this book was the mention of the Manson girls in the synopsis. I have a thing for cults in general, and the Manson Family in particular (childhood true crime buff with a college minor in sociology here). Yet the connection is much smaller and more tenuous than I expected – and I’m okay with that. The Manson murders are just one of several then-current events that set the backdrop for the story. As her “relationship” (if you can call it that) with William sours, Lucy draws parallels between him and Charlie. Yet there’s also a murder much closer to home that strikes fear into Lucy’s heart, causing William to bring a gun home – which only intensifies her fear. Likewise, in reaction to the Kent State massacre, campus protests against the Vietnam War heat up, which heightens Lucy’s homesickness – with Charlotte now at Brandeis, certainly the sisters could bond over marches and sit-ins?

Going back even further, Iris’s situation – and that of so many other women who found meaningful, paying work, only to have it taken away at the end of the war – mirrors Lucy’s too. When marriage and the end of WWI forces her to leave her job as a welder at a shipyard – which she’s come to love, along with the independence it and Doug’s absence provides her – she’s overcome with anxiety. What will she do with her days? Iris is captive, not to a rapist pedophile teacher like Lucy, but to the suffocating roles society assigns to men and (especially) women.

Leavitt’s writing is simply lovely: lyrical and insightful, almost as likely to bring a smile to your lips as a tear (or a whole river of ’em) to your eye. Leavitt creates compelling characters, and truly moving relationships. I especially loved Iris and Doug (and, later, Iris and Joe – kudos to Leavitt for acknowledging the sex lives of seniors!). Their relationship is just as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. Though neither could be what the other wanted, they did the best they could, given the circumstances – and they built a deep and true friendship that lasted a lifetime. I also adored Iris and the girls, and Patrick and Vera.

Lucy and Charlotte are engaging, interesting protagonists, even if I couldn’t always relate to them. Maybe it’s the difference in era, or upbringing? Weirdly, as someone who woke up one day to find herself nearing middle age, Iris’s experiences in aging hit much closer to home. Though she’d probably laugh or scoff, seeing as I’m young enough yet to be her daughter.

Leavitt’s depiction of William and Lucy is masterful. Well, mostly. While William would protest that he’s not a pedophile or rapist – he loves Lucy and only Lucy because she’s a special snowflake/old soul – Leavitt unmasks him for the monster he is.

After absconding with Lucy to the Pennsylvania wilderness, he keeps her in near-total isolation – allegedly for his/her/their protection, so they won’t get caught and he won’t go to jail. He prohibits her from leaving the property, and will not let her get a job, her GED, or even a license. When she happens upon a bicycle, she hides it in the forest behind their house so he won’t confiscate it. He forces his beliefs on her: she cannot have a television, because it rots her brain, and when she picks up a package of hamburger in the store, he informs her that they’re now vegetarians. (I’m a vegan, but using diet as a form of control isn’t something I can get behind.) When she gets a job, in secret, Lucy fantasizes about spending her money on cookies, deli meat, and soda – “the things William wouldn’t keep in the house” – and binge-eating it on the side of the road.

In other words, William is controlling AF; while this behavior is at first couched in a sort of Romeo & Juliet romance, Lucy quickly realizes that this isn’t so. He becomes paranoid and violent: Lucy could swear she’s being watched during the day, and William gives her “love taps” that hurt. In what comes as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about domestic violence and escalation, William punches Lucy in the face when he catches her hitching a ride home with some guy. He buys a gun and makes her learn how to use it. About the only thing he doesn’t do is threaten to hurt the chickens, one of whom Lucy’s bonded with.

(Abusers often threaten to hurt animals as a means of further terrorizing their victims. And, since abusers often begin by isolating their victims, the family pet may be the only friend or social connection they have left … as is the case with Lucy, for a short time, anyhow. As an aside: domestic violence shelters are finally getting hip to this fact! If you want to help, see if your DV shelter accepts nonhuman animals; if so, volunteer as a foster home! I do and it’s super-awesome. And no, I never miss an opportunity to talk this up, because so few people know about it.)

And as to Lucy being an anomaly, a one-time “indiscretion”: she isn’t the first student William took a liking to. Make no mistake, he is a rapist and a serial predator and more, but spoilers.

This is why I was so disappointed by the ending. While I loved 90% of the book, there are a few parts that dulled the shine for me, just a bit. For one, and as I already mentioned, Leavitt gives William the opportunity to speak for himself, to tell his side of the story. Though this is partly out of necessity – he’s the only one who can shine a light on said events – and the narrative (mostly) contradicts his version of events, it’s still kind of gross. On the one hand, it’s certainly a lesson in how rapists see themselves – they’re the victims, no one understands them, they were seduced and powerless to stop themselves, and on and on. Hopefully you’re hip enough to rape culture to see this for the self-serving BS it is. But Charlotte – William’s audience – lacks the tools to fully dismantle his rape apologism, and the story suffers for it.

Additionally, after she finds and reads Lucy’s diary, Charlotte comes to envy her sister. Sibling rivalry is one of many themes central to the story, and it’s fascinating to see the different ways that Lucy and Charlotte view each other, their relationship, and the one they share with Iris. Charlotte feels frumpy, shy, and unpopular, especially when compared to the beautiful and outgoing Lucy. Meanwhile, Lucy fears she might be stupid, and envies Charlotte’s intelligence and beauty.

Anyway, Lucy’s diary reveals that she was good at something: writing. In it Charlotte sees a girl who is wild and free, who is true to herself and follows her dreams. And she vows to be a little more like her younger sister: to make friends, worry less about her grades, put herself out there and go after what she wants in life, consequences be damned.

But here’s the thing. Lucy wasn’t a free agent, or not wholly so. She was William’s victim. He spent months grooming her, identifying her weaknesses and then exploiting them. Where Lucy felt inadequate and destined for a life of drudgery, William complimented her writing and offered to work with her, improving it. Both Iris and Charlotte realized that Lucy craved the attention of boys – older ones in particular – thanks in no small part to her childhood. Dad was a womanizer who kept trading in his wives for progressively younger models. Attention was a reward to be doled out to the daughter who acted a certain way: outgoing, flirty, the belle of the ball. No doubt William saw this need to please as well. Poor Lucy never stood a chance.

Read it with: Emma Cline’s The Girls; Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It by Kate Harding.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: At twenty-seven, Iris was considered a spinster – at least by 1917 standards. She had a job as a welder in a shipyard – where she and the only other Jewish woman faced anti-Semitic harassment, and were expected to hand their jobs over to men when the war ended – and went to socials every chance she got. But it wasn’t until Douglas Gold waltzed into her life that her romantic daydreams became reality. After a whirlwind romance, the pair wed the day before Doug was redeployed. He returned two years later, after the end of WWI, with a scarred face and a closed heart. It wasn’t until Iris caught him in the arms of their next-door neighbor, Rick, that she understood why: Doug was gay. But Iris loved Doug, considered him her best friend, and decided that an imperfect marriage was better than no marriage at all – and so she pretended not to know.

After Rick was transferred to London, Doug was distraught. Iris tried her best to cheer him up, devising fun activities to distract him, and the two grew ever closer. Eventually she told Doug that she knew about him and Rick, and didn’t care: she wanted to stay together. And thus was the beginning of a long and emotionally close – if not physical – relationship.

Iris and Doug never had children, nor did they adopt (Doug didn’t want to raise kids that were not his own). When Doug died of a heart attack in his sixties, Iris grieved and then decided to travel, solo, using the money he’d left her. Just as she was planning a jaunt to Paris, however, she received a call from her father’s lawyer – the same father who abandoned Iris (and her mother) when she was eight, and whom she’d never heard from since. It turned out that he’d maintained the habit – started with Iris’s mom – of trading in his wives for younger models every decade or so. His most recent wife was forty, compared to her father’s eighty-odd years. The pair had died in a club fire, leaving two young girls behind: five-year-old Lucy and six-year-old Charlotte. Since they had no other family, Iris reluctantly agreed to take them in – but said that she was a long-lost aunt rather than their half-sister. (She quickly falls in love with them, and eventually wins them over.)

Eleven years later, sixteen-year-old Lucy disappears, leaving only a cryptic note in her wake. She ran off with her thirty-year-old English teacher, William Lallo, with whom she’d had a sexual relationship (RAPE) for months. Fired from his job at Waltham High (in Massachusetts), William lined up a new gig at Spirit Free School in rural Pennsylvania. Upon their arrival, William’s abusive behavior escalates: He isolates Lucy, insisting that she not leave their property, for her own good. He doesn’t let her get a job, her GED, or a license; he discourages her from making friends. He imposes her beliefs on her; he won’t get a TV, because it rots your brain, and suddenly declares that they’re not vegetarians. He hides money from her. Most alarmingly, he becomes physically abusive: he gives her “love taps” which actually hurt, and even punches her in the face when he catches her getting a ride from a strange man. He brings a gun into the house – even though he’s allegedly a “pacifist” – and insists that she learn how to use it.

When Lucy tries to leave, pulling what she thinks is an unloaded gun on William, she ends up dead; Charlotte, whom Lucy had called for help the day before, is the one to find her sister’s body. Having found William’s car parked by the Ben Franklin Bridge near Philadelphia – and a witness who saw a man jump into the river – the police conclude that William committed suicide. Charlotte has her doubts and continues the investigation on her own. When she finally tracks William down, he does kill himself, with a gun.

After Lucy’s disappearance, Iris becomes depressed. She falls in the basement and is trapped down there for a day before Charlotte finds her; the doctor diagnoses her with a sprained ankle and a weak heart. Iris begins forgetting things. Charlotte convinces Iris to sell her house and move into a retirement home. There she meets and falls in love with Joe who, at 82, is two years her senior. There’s actually a sex scene between the two octogenarians; Leavitt’s depiction of an elderly romance is both lovely and refreshing – doubly so after learning of Iris’s first marriage, which makes you root for her all the more.

Patrick, who runs the farm stand that becomes Lucy’s “salvation,” was once married. He and Vera were high school sweethearts who married after graduating from college. Though both sets of parents liked their kids’ girlfriend/boyfriend, Patrick’s Catholic parents and Vera’s Jewish ones pestered them to find more “suitable” matches; this talk ceased after they wedded. Vera pressured Patrick into having kids, but they failed to conceive. Vera’s health continued to decline, but they thought it was just stress. Then she died, and the doctor discovered that she’d had an enlarged heart. Had it been diagnosed sooner, they could have treated it. Both Patrick and Vera’s parents blamed him. Many years later, Patrick will seek (and get) their forgiveness. In the interim, Patrick becomes deeply depressed, quits school (he was a few tests shy of obtaining his master’s in botany), and becomes an alcoholic.

William’s father was abusive.

Many of the characters are Jewish: Iris, Lucy, and Charlotte; Iris’s father, and his first and second brides, at least; Douglas Gold; Vera; and Dr. Bronstein, who gives Charlotte an internship at Fur Friends, a veterinary office.

Animal-friendly elements: The house that William rents for him and Lucy comes with a backyard chicken coop and four chickens: Dorothy, Lisa, and Mabel the hens, and George the rooster. Lucy is scared of them – especially George, who always looks as if he’s about to attack – and generally hates tending to them, but in her isolation and loneliness, she forms a tentative friendship with Dorothy, who’s often bullied by her fellow captives:

The hens squawked and Lisa pecked Dorothy out of the way. “Cut that out,” Lucy ordered. She put some feed in her hand, crouched down, holding out her palm for Dorothy, lifting it up and away when Mabel tried to get near. “This is Dorothy’s,” she said. Dorothy pecked at her palm, her beak like tiny little scissors. She made an odd purring sound.

After her chores, Lucy goes inside for a nap, having forgotten to close the outside door:

Something bit her, and she woke up. Dorothy was on the bed, her head cocked, murmuring. Lucy didn’t move, and Dorothy then settled down, her eyes shutting, the steady buk-buk-buk winding down.

While Lucy follows news of the Tate-Labianca murders and Manson Family trial, drawing a parallel between William and Charles Manson, Lucy has a kindred spirit of sorts closer to home, in Dorothy. Both are outsiders, overlooked and bullied in their own communities. And both are held captive, exploited because of their gender:

She didn’t tell him that she hated to take the eggs from the hens, especially Dorothy, who always gave her a brooding sort of cluck. She let the hens sit on the eggs as long as they wanted, because what else did they have that was their own?

When William brings a gun home and insists that Lucy learn how to use it, she worries about accidentally hurting an animal, which further goes to her innate goodness:

And if she didn’t hit the cans, where would the bullet go? If she shot a bird or an animal, she would never forgive herself.

Charlotte, too, has a soft spot for animals: she studies science in college, wants to become a veterinarian, and even lands an internship with Fur Friends, run by the gruff but compassionate Dr. Bronstein:

“And always call people in by their pet’s name,” he said. “Give the animals that dignity.”

 

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