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Book review

Troubled teen runs off with teacher in page-turner about family bonds

“Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.” From its first sentence, Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, “Cruel Beautiful World,” draws the reader into a seductive page-turner that ripples with an undercurrent of suspense and is fueled by the foibles of the human heart.

The novel starts in 1969 and reflects the upheaval of the day — the Vietnam War, the shootings at Kent State University, the Charlie Manson murders. The latter especially fosters a sense of unease among the book’s female characters, slyly projecting a sinister overtone in crucial parts of the narrative. The more deeply we invest in the people Leavitt conjures, the more a sense of dread creeps in as the story unfolds. But more deeply, “Cruel Beautiful World” is about familial bonds and strains, the perilous journey of growing up, and the power of resilience to move forward, despite the aching sorrows of the past.

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The first chapters introduce Lucy, a beautiful, effervescent 16-year-old, “skinny as a whippet” with “a wild corona of blond hair.” A talented writer, but perennially in the shadow of her “model student” older sister Charlotte and disenchanted with school, Lucy is ripe for falling under the spell of her handsome, charismatic young teacher.

But William is similarly out of his element at the school. His idealism and casual, enthusiastic teaching style, which make him a favorite among students, make him vulnerable to the rigid requirements of the school’s curriculum, and his morale is soon broken by the system. He gradually succumbs to Lucy’s charms, finding in her a kindred spirit despite their age difference. He and Lucy hatch a plan to run away together, keeping their liaison secret until she comes of legal age.

The two disappear into the wilds of Pennsylvania, where William teaches at a cult-like alternative school, and Lucy stays home, out of sight of any authorities. The narrative opens to examine the aftermath of their impulsive decision. 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. As their dynamic shifts and roils, Lucy bristles, youthful naivete finally giving way to a more mature grasp of what she has lost and what the world might have yet to offer her.

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Leavitt also movingly chronicles the family Lucy leaves behind — sister Charlotte and 79-year-old, “distantly related’’ Iris, who has raised the girls since their parents’ death 10 years earlier. Iris’s history takes the narrative in a very different direction, changing its tone. But it also leads to a surprising twist, and Iris’s experiences paint a vivid, heartbreakingly resonant picture of the indignities of aging — the physical frailty, the cognitive decline. Another sympathetic and insightful character, Patrick, is seminal to both sisters’ fates, but his story also slows the book’s flow, the “what happens next?” momentum. In retrospect, that’s not such an ill-considered tactic.

It is Charlotte who drives the last half of the book forward with focused intensity, as she feverishly works to find out why her sister disappeared and where she might be. Fueled by both anger at Lucy’s callous departure and fear for her safety, she scours Lucy’s room for clues and puts up “Missing” signs, all while dealing with Iris’s gradual decline. The slow reveal of Charlotte’s back story and her poignant transformation through the process of searching for Lucy carry “Cruel Beautiful World” home.

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Leavit is author of the powerful best-selling “Pictures of You” and 10 other novels, and her writing ranges from short, direct sentences projecting a character’s drive and desperation to longer, elegant turns of phrase, such as Patrick’s reflection that “He hated the way his parents fussed over him, their concern like a scratchy wool blanket.” 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.

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD

By Caroline Leavitt

Algonquin, 357 pp., $26.95


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.