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Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is not unlike her earlier books: full of sad, lonely characters who have suffered cruel twists of fate trying to find happiness in challenging circumstances. In this most recent novel, 16 year-old Lucy has run off with her 30 year-old teacher William, a hippie who has been fired for not adhering to the traditional curriculum. It’s the 60s, and William’s talk of running away to be free and in love persuades the immature teenager to leave her sister Charlotte and her much older adoptive mother, Iris. Unsurprisingly, life in the small rural town William takes Lucy to is isolating and boring, while he goes off to work every day but forbids her from talking to anyone or contacting her family because she is underage.

Cruel Beautiful World is a bit of a thriller – what will happen to Lucy? can she escape from angry, controlling William? When it doesn’t all go as planned, who will find out, and will justice be served? Interspersed with Lucy’s story are the offshoot stories of Iris, Charlotte, and Patrick, a widower whom Lucy secretly befriends during her long, lonely days. I enjoyed the explorations of these characters, and I think that is where Leavitt is at her strongest. She takes her time explaining how her characters became the people they are, and she imbues them each with dignity, empathy and just enough hope to keep the reader invested.

The story of Lucy and William was much more problematic for me. William is a child predator: emotionally abusive and unconscionably selfish. I know that Leavitt intends for the reader to understand that about him – in interviews, she said she based him on a real-life controlling partner – but shockingly, she sort of lets him off the hook in the end. It’s as if she wants the reader to wonder if he were really that bad. (!)  (Yes, he was.) Also, I found it unrealistic that Lucy would have kept silent for so long. She had opportunities for escape and didn’t take them. I wasn’t convinced enough of her love for (or fear of ) William that she would have stayed with him that long. She was immature and selfish herself, and I think in the end she would have just done what she wanted.

So Cruel Beautiful World was a mixed bag for me. I loved the classic Leavitt touches but found the underlying plot problematic.

I listened to Cruel Beautiful World on audio. Xe Sands did a masterful, restrained performance, especially during the Iris chapters. Her smooth, understated delivery was perfect for the book. I did wonder whether she was as frustrated with the main characters as I was!


IS THIS TOMORROW by Caroline Leavitt

Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt is domestic fiction masquerading as a missing child mystery set in the 1950s. Ava Lark, a woman in her 30s living in Waltham, Massachusetts, has many things going against her: she’s divorced, Jewish, has a son, works outside the home, and (gasp!) is dating. The 50s were not kind to women in her position: her neighbors shun her, men are leery of committing to her because of her son and lingering custody battle, and she is always tight on money and very dependent on lose her job as a typist. Ava’s son, Lewis, seeks out the friendship of the only other kids in the neighborhood with a single mom: Rose and Jimmy, whose father is dead. Jimmy and Lewis become best friends, while Rose, who is a few years older than the boys, serves as their third Musketeer while harboring a secret crush on Lewis.

One day, Jimmy disappears. He is there one minute – hanging around Ava’s house even though Lewis wasn’t home yet – and gone the next. His disappearance profoundly affects Ava, Lewis and Rose, who struggle for the next decade to make sense of what happened to Jimmy and deal with the huge void left in their lives. Ava unsuccessfully tries to maintain her friendship with Jimmy’s mother, Dot, while avoiding suspicion about her connection to the disappearance. Lewis becomes an ambition-less loner who shies away from opening up to others. And Rose, who is left with the responsibility of comforting and taking care of her mother, becomes so obsessed with Jimmy’s disappearance that she is unable to move on and form new relationships.

Ultimately, Is This Tomorrow is about disconnection and isolation, and how secrets held for years can have terrible implications for those kept in the dark. Rose’s love for Lewis was thwarted because her mother did not approve of them staying in communication after Rose moved away. A misunderstanding involving Lewis’ father ends up having far-reaching implications that can never be fixed. And the truth about where most of the characters were on the night Jimmy disappeared, when revealed, shows how terribly these lives were altered by impulsive, unplanned actions.

[Phew – I was really trying to avoid spoilers there!]

So here’s what I liked about Is This Tomorrow: the depiction of the 50s, the simplicity of Leavitt’s writing, the way that five characters’ lives were so seamlessly integrated throughout the book, and the fact that I had no idea how the book was going to end.

Here’s what I didn’t like as much: all of the coincidences that took place on the night of the mystery (totally unnecessary), the actual resolution itself (which seemed unrealistic), and the frustrating passivity of some of the characters. I get that it took place in the pre-Internet era, when people could move away and not be found, but I was frustrated by how easily Lewis and Rose accepted their separation from each other without trying to change it. Ava, too, was very frustrating. I understand that as a woman she was limited in what she could do to take control of her life, but she played the victim so frequently that I wanted to shake her out of it.

In the end, though, Is This Tomorrow kept me reading at a time when I have been very distracted and unable to commit to a book. It was hard to put down and I found it a pleasure to read/listen to it. I mostly listened to Is This Tomorrow on audio, and overall I enjoyed the narration by Xe Sands. She has a calm voice that was the perfect translator of Leavitt’s even, measured writing. My one complaint was that her narration of the male characters, especially the teenage boys, didn’t feel accurate. They sounded sort of stoned a lot of the time, as did Ava’s boyfriend Jake, which was distracting and not always true to the text. Ava’s voice often had a desperate tinge to it, which was probably intentional but was occasionally annoying. Overall, though, the audio was very good and I recommend it.

Is This Tomorrow was my second Caroline Leavitt novel – I read Pictures of You a few years ago – and I would definitely read more from her!