In her new novel Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline Leavitt author of dramatic novels such as Girls in Trouble and Pictures of You, presents a story that manages to be both tragically poignant and emotionally enthralling. The year is 1969, backdrop to the Vietnam War and student protests when sixteen-year-old Lucy plans to run away with William Lallo, a much older man with whom she is having a secret sexual relationship. William also happens to be one of Lucy’s teachers, their union evoking a hint of Lolita in a time when the Manson Family and an unprecedented sexual revolution, were making headlines all over the country.
They escape on the last day of school, planning to live a life of free love in rural Pennsylvania. Lucy leaves a rather mysterious note behind for her family, letting them know that she’s all right and that she’s happy. But Lucy’s decision and what happens after will have dire effects on the lives of everyone around her, including her older sister and de-facto babysitter Charlotte as well as Iris, the woman who has devotedly raised them.
Soon enough, Lucy’s expectations for her life with William begin to go awry. He starts backing out on many of his promises to her and things quickly get ugly as Lucy’s world goes from a blissful utopia to a severely controlled and isolated existence plagued with physical and mental abuse at the hands of a disguised predator. Lucy’s only respite is her writing and her friendship with Patrick, a widower and owner of a vegetable stand, who struggles with his own demons. But despite this, Lucy isn’t immune to change and she finds herself breaking out of her shell to try and take control of her life and her choices, although the realization of how trapped she truly is, has come too late.
Leavitt draws a strikingly beautiful narrative, while additionally creating complex characters that we want to know more about. Iris, the girls’ guardian is herself a woman who has suffered her whole life, her past resurfacing in a series of flashbacks through which we manage to understand the pain of her youth and the series of events that prompt her to be the one who loves but is never loved in return.
Charlotte however is the permanent take-charge person of this little family. Before Lucy disappears and after even more so, she tries to tightly hold everything together. Through a careful reflection, Charlotte arrives at a turning point thinking over how she has approached her life and the life of those around her realizing that there are things unavoidably beyond her control, and that often life can be cruel and unpredictable, but no less beautiful and rewarding:
Charlotte had tried so hard to control everything, but she knew now how wrong she had been. Control wasn’t freedom. It didn’t protect anyone, not you or the ones you loved, and if anything, it kept you from living.
Sometimes you couldn’t fix things, you couldn’t make them better, and you had to live with that. It didn’t make you a bad person, the way she had thought. It made you human.
By means of a gripping prose, Caroline Leavitt shows us how Charlotte grows as a person and as a woman. But the character growth isn’t limited to Charlotte; Iris and Lucy go through their own metamorphosis, proving that it’s never too late to start again. Over a phone conversation, Caroline Leavitt offered more detail about what inspired Cruel Beautiful World and delves a little deeper into the motivations and complicated background of her characters.
There have been quite a few books lately that have dealt with Manson family or cult related topics, such as Emma Cline’s The Girls or Amy Gentry’s As Good As Gone. Why do you think this topic is recurrent in this year’s fiction and what inspired you personally to write a story about a girl trapped in this Manson-type relationship?
Well, first of all I’ve been trying to write this story since I was seventeen (laughs). I was in school in the 70s, so I know that period quite well. I used to sit behind this girl in study hall when I was in high school, and I was telling her that I wanted to go to college, and travel and be all hippie. She told me that she had been engaged for two years, and was getting married once she finished high school.
She was eighteen, and engaged to a guy who was a lot older than she was and quite a bit controlling. Later on, and this was the year after all the student strikes and the protests at Kent State, I got a phone call from a friend who also knew this girl from high school, and she told me that her boyfriend has asked her to set a date for the wedding, and she had decided to break it off instead. So he grabbed a knife and stabbed her several times.
I think that another reason this topic is popping out is because the world is so dangerous now and really nobody feels very safe anymore. But when the truth started coming out about Manson and what he and his followers did, the scariest thing was that just like myself, every girl I knew was thinking: “That could have been me.”
But in Lucy’s case there’s also that kind of idealization going on, because William was her teacher, and an older man.
Absolutely true, and it’s really hard to escape that.
How difficult was it for you to write from different points of view?
Oh, I love writing from different points of view! I would have written from ten points of view but my editor told me to focus a bit more (laughs). I love getting into other people’s heads and feeling like I am that particular person at that particular time, and in a whole different zone. So that part wasn’t really difficult for me. Keeping the narrative moving, that was a little difficult.
Which of the characters posed the most challenge for you?
Well, the thing is that when I turned this book in to my editor, it was completely different book than the one it ended up being. All the women in the book were sort of mad at each other, and my editor said, “They can have conflict, but you have to find the love between them.” And I kept thinking, “That’s going to turn into a nicey-nicey sort of book, and I want to write a dark book.” But she kept telling me to try, so I had to change all the relationships.
Initially, for example, Iris didn’t want the girls at all and they were basically pests to her. I had to change that she loved them instead, and had to kind of win them over, so the book became different. The same thing happened with Charlotte and Lucy’s relationship, because originally they resented each other. This was really difficult to change because I had worked so many years to make them sort of prickly with each other, so I had to develop some bonds between them in order for the book to have texture.
I really liked Patrick and Charlotte’s relationship, which grows partly out of mutual grief for Lucy and what happened to her. However, soon they start to connect in their own way, and I felt that in the end that connection has little to do with Lucy and more to do with each other. Do you agree with that?
It’s a fabulous thing what you just said because when I start figuring out characters, I always think in terms of what is it that this character needs, and how can the other character provide it for them? Patrick is drawn to Charlotte because she goes out into the world to see what she can find out about Lucy, while Charlotte begins to turn to Patrick not really because of Lucy, but because he takes care of her and no one’s ever done that; she’s always been the one who takes care of everybody else. That’s a great story strategy question, no one has ever asked me that and that’s perfect!
William and Lucy’s relationship is quite disturbing not solely because of the age difference, but because he extracts Lucy from her family and isolates her from everyone. But somehow Lucy intellectually grows and becomes her own person even in this delicate frame of mind. Would you say that everything she goes through with William, and this isolation, planted the seed for her to creatively thrive in a way
That another great question because that’s exactly right. It forced her to make decisions about the kind of life she wanted and what she wanted to do with her life. It forced her to grow up and take some responsibility instead of being told by somebody else what she should do. So he did, in a way, help her to grow.
Iris never reveals to the girls her real link to them until almost in the end when she confesses the truth to Charlotte. Why does she keep this from them?
Because Iris has never been loved for herself, her life hasn’t really worked out the way she wanted to, and she wanted to protect Lucy and Charlotte from knowing the truth. But also, she was ashamed to be a person who had never experienced love or had love, and the one thing she felt that she could do for these girls was love them.
I like that Iris got the opportunity to feel that love with Joe, the man she has a relationship with, even if it’s quite late in life.
That’s actually my personal love letter to my mom, who fell in love for the first time in her nineties. Unfortunately, she now has dementia so she won’t be able to read the book or know about it. But I saw her change from a bitter woman who didn’t believe in love to this woman who just bloomed. It was just incredible to watch, and I wanted to write about that.
Which character do you identify with?
Although I was very wild when I was young, I actually identify with Charlotte. I always feel like I have to fix things and make them better. While I was writing this book I was having a difficult time with my own sister who has a lot of struggles in her life, and I kept trying to fix them for her, and instead of making the situation better I made it much worse. Eventually I realized that some things you just can’t fix, so I had the same feeling that Charlotte has when she wants to control everything and makes lists to that end. I also make a lot of lists! But I’m trying to loosen up a bit.
For me though, the hardest character to understand and decipher his motivations was William. I never really knew if he truly loved Lucy or was it more infatuation with her youth, her admiration for him…
That’s another really interesting question because this actually the first novel I’ve ever written where I wasn’t entirely sure, and that’s why I let him tell a bit of his story in the end, hoping that his character would tell me. But what ended up happening was that after I wrote it I thought, “does William believe what he’s saying about his feelings for Lucy?” “Or is he saying it because he thinks it’s something Charlotte wants to hear?” “Has he convinced himself, or is he just lying?” And I never knew what the truth was, so I decided to take the risk and just not explain it, let other people come to their own conclusions whether he really loved her or if he was just using her. In the end he’s still in control because the character never allows you the opportunity to really know.
Don’t you think he got off too easy in the end?
No, I don’t. Because I think he was constantly tortured and everything he did to try and reverse that made him feel worse. The ultimate torture is of course what happened between him and Lucy.
What would you like readers to take from Cruel Beautiful World and its characters?
That some things can’t be prevented and that you’re not responsible for everything no matter how hard you try, and sometimes you have to let life wash over you and do the best you can. And also, that there’s part of the world that’s incredibly cruel and tragic, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to try and make that part as beautiful as possible, heal it as much as you can and find beauty in the world even after tragedy.
Is there a future novel in the works?
There is, and I feel like I’m torn between two lovers! I’m writing two novels at once and I can’t decide which one I want to write first. I think I’ve narrowed it down, but I can’t talk about it yet; I never talk about a work in progress unless it has at least three chapters. Right now it just feels too new and I’m too anxious about it. I’m also working on a pilot with another novelist friend of mine, which is something fun and different. I’m always working on something.