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Cruel, Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

When I don’t have my nose buried in a book, I pay the bills by teaching. I find books about teacher-student relationships particularly disturbing. Nevertheless, I was hooked by the opening lines of this novel by Caroline Leavitt, whose other bestsellers, Pictures of You, Girls in Trouble and Is This Tomorrow follow similar themes of difficult marriages, familial secrets and the consequences of women who seek an escape.

Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.

Set in the late 60s, it is impossible not to compare this novel to Lolita. But while Vladimir Nabokov goes on and on about the definition of a nymphette, and how exquisitely beautiful her legs are, Leavitt approaches the topic from the perspective of the victims: Lucy, her sister Charlotte and her adoptive mother/grandmother, Iris. I found Leavitt’s novel to be better paced than Lolita, and I definitely preferred to see it from the perspective of the young girl who runs away, than through the eyes of the predator.

Then, there it is, after a whole day of staring at the clock, three in the afternoon and Lucy swears that for a moment all the color has bled out of the school. Every person seems smudged. She leans against her locker, gulping air, averting her whole body so she can’t tell if anyone is looking at her.

This perspective allows Leavitt to explore the psychology of a victim trapped in an abusive relationship, and why it is not so simple to just leave or seek help. She also explores the relationship between two sisters: the protectiveness of the older sister and its conflict with the jealousy and insecurities of two teenaged girls. As the relationship between Lucy and William sours and she is overwhelmed with disillusion and disappointment, the reader goes from scorning a flighty, irresponsible teenager to sympathising with a trapped young woman.

Just the year before, when Charlotte had been huddled over her college essay, crumpling up yet another piece of paper, Lucy had walked by her and impulsively hugged her, as if she had known exactly what Charlotte needed. Why hadn’t Charlotte known what Lucy needed? Had she been so absorbed in her own life that she had lost sight of her sister?

What I liked most about this novel was its simplicity in style and complexity in feeling. It’s readable and compelling and trims away the unnecessary metaphors and imagery in favour of something more real and powerful. I would recommend it for book clubs and for mature teen-aged readers.

I could have kept swimming. I could have swum all the way to another town, found a job and a new life, but instead I felt that tug of love, like a rope around my ankles as if I was a fish, caught on his line. I swam back.

As for flaws, I found the story a little far fetched at times. Perhaps it was trying too hard; some images were powerful enough without requiring over-the-top supernatural moments to ‘deepen’ the point. It was not often, but when it happened, it felt a bit self-indulgent and I think the novel would have benefited from a little more subtlety.

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.

Overall this was a good page-turner with a strong message, and in the comparison to Nabokov I would say that I prefer Leavitt’s approach, and although it could have been a little more subtle I could not put it down.