Tag Archives: caroline leavitt

CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD by Caroline Leavitt

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!

PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt

Leavitt The February EDIWTB book club pick was Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt. Pictures of You explores how one fatal car accident changes the lives of two women escaping from their lives on Cape Cod. April, married to Charlie and mother to Sam, mysteriously parks her car going the wrong way on a Connecticut road in deep fog. Isabelle, wife to Luke, finds herself driving down that same road on the same foggy day, and slams into April's car. The sad aftermath of that accident has ramifications for Isabelle, Charlie and Sam, for the rest of their lives, which Leavitt explores sensitively and poignantly.

Leavitt is a master storyteller. I am a slooow reader, but I had a hard time putting this book down and read it much more quickly than I usually get through 300+ plus page books. There were key elements in the story which she didn't reveal until very late in the book – elements which significantly affected my feelings about one of the characters – and I loved that plot twist. I found Pictures of You to be unpredictable – it surprised me at several turns and made me want to keep reading.

I liked Leavitt's depiction of the different kinds of love we can experience – love for a child, love for a longterm spouse, love fueled by passion or grief, forbidden love, and platonic love. I think she did a nice job of differentiating the many relationships in the book and exploring their limits and intensity.

Some reviews have mentioned that there are supernatural elements to the story. I didn't see it that way. In fact, I liked that it was grounded in realism – the messy, imperfect realism that makes our lives go in directions we don't always choose. While Sam wants desperately to believe in angels when he is processing his mother's death, I don't think Leavitt meant to suggest that April was truly present, in any form. I have a very low tolerance level for fantasy or otherworldly plot points, and I wasn't bothered at all by Leavitt's story in that respect.

However, I did find some of the coincidences to be a too convenient. No one remarked on how unlikely it was that two women from the same small Cape Cod town would collide on a remote Connecticut street hours away. I had a hard time with Isabelle happening across a flyer for a photography course in New York City that was posted in her small-town bookstore. (Um, really?) And of course, Isabelle ends up falling for the guy who owns the restaurant she just happens to walk by on her way home from a New Year's Eve party. I know that Leavitt could have found away to construct this story without these contrivances, and it would have made for a more powerful book for me.

That said, I did truly enjoy reading Pictures of You. It kept me turning those pages and eagerly absorbing the storyline and Leavitt's memorable characters.

Thank you to Algonquin for supplying the books for the EDIWTB book club.

So, EDIWTB readers - what did you think?

February Online Book Club: PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt

I am excited to announce the EDIWTB February Online Book Club: Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt, which I wrote about earlier this month. Algonquin has generously agreed to provide copies to EDIWTB readers who would like to read the book and discuss it here.

Here is the Amazon summary:

Leavitt Leavitt's ninth book (after Girls in Trouble), a touching story of loss and discovery, centers on photographer Isabelle Stein, whose stifled Cape Cod life and marriage crumbles when she discovers her husband has gotten his mistress pregnant. She packs up her cameras and takes off, but has a horrific car accident in Hartford, Conn., that kills the woman in the other car. As it turns out, the dead woman is April Nash, who lived a few blocks away from Isabelle's home on the Cape, and April's son, Sam, now believes Isabelle is an angel who can help him communicate with his mother. Once Isabelle ends up back on the Cape, she, Sam, and April's widower, Charlie, develop a strong but strange bond as they all try to sort out what comes next. Leavitt explores the depths of grief and the sticky spots sorrow pushes people into, and though the story stumbles sometimes into too saccharine moments, Leavitt's near bottomless reserve of compassion for her imperfect characters will endear them to readers.

Pictures of You comes out on Tuesday, January 25th.

If you would like to participate in the EDIWTB book club for Pictures of You, send me an email at gweiswasser@gmail.com with the following information in the following format:

name

address

address

email address

Thanks again to Algonquin for facilitating the book club! Looking forward to a great discussion in February.

A Package From Algonquin

I came home today to a nice package from Algonquin Books, a publisher I really enjoy. It contained:

Pictures of You, by Caroline Leavitt. Amazing Amazon reviews – here's a synopsis:

Leavitt Leavitt's ninth book (after Girls in Trouble), a touching story of loss and discovery, centers on photographer Isabelle Stein, whose stifled Cape Cod life and marriage crumbles when she discovers her husband has gotten his mistress pregnant. She packs up her cameras and takes off, but has a horrific car accident in Hartford, Conn., that kills the woman in the other car. As it turns out, the dead woman is April Nash, who lived a few blocks away from Isabelle's home on the Cape, and April's son, Sam, now believes Isabelle is an angel who can help him communicate with his mother. Once Isabelle ends up back on the Cape, she, Sam, and April's widower, Charlie, develop a strong but strange bond as they all try to sort out what comes next. Leavitt explores the depths of grief and the sticky spots sorrow pushes people into, and though the story stumbles sometimes into too saccharine moments, Leavitt's near bottomless reserve of compassion for her imperfect characters will endear them to readers.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, by Heidi Durrow. I've heard a lot about this one:

Durrow Early on in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Rachel Morse (the girl in question) wonders about being "tender-headed." It's how her grandmother chides her for wincing at having her hair brushed, but it's also a way of understanding how Rachel grapples with the world in which she landed. Her parents, a Danish woman and an African-American G.I., tried to hold her and her siblings aloft from questions of race, and their failure there is both tragic and tenderly wrought. After sustaining an unimaginable trauma, Rachel resumes her life as a black girl, an identity she quickly learns to adopt but at heart is always reconciling with the life she knew before. Heidi W. Durrow bolsters her story with a chorus of voices that often see what Rachel can't–this is particularly true in the case of Brick, the only witness to her fall. There's a poetry to these characters that draws you into their lives, making for a beautiful and earnest coming-of-age novel that speaks as eloquently to teens as it does to adults.

And…

Paris Was Ours, by Penelope Rowlands. A collection of essays about one of my favorite cities, Paris:

IParisn thirty-two personal essays—more than half of which are here published for the first time—the writers describe how they were seduced by Paris and then began to see things differently. They came to write, to cook, to find love, to study, to raise children, to escape, or to live the way it’s done in French movies; they came from the United States, Canada, and England; from Iran, Iraq, and Cuba; and—a few—from other parts of France. And they stayed, not as tourists, but for a long time; some are still living there. They were outsiders who became insiders, who here share their observations and revelations. Some are well-known writers: Diane Johnson, David Sedaris, Judith Thurman, Joe Queenan, and Edmund White. Others may be lesser known but are no less passionate on the subject.

These all look good. Have you read any of them?

My BEA Piles

Here are the books I got at BEA this year. I definitely tried to be selective, so the pile isn't that big. But there are some in here that I am really looking forward to reading.

Bea1
I already mentioned Room by Emma Donoghue.

Another book that got a lot of buzz at BEA was West of Here, which I got signed by Jonathan Evison. (It wasn't until RIGHT NOW that I realized that he also wrote All About Lulu, which I reviewed here). I can't believe I didn't put that together until now.

I am excited to read The Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives by Josie Brown. Can't tell if it's fluff or not.

Picked up new books from Michael Cunningham (By Nightfall) and Michael Chabon (Manhood for Amateurs).

Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari, from Unbridled Books, has gotten some great reviews.

Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt looks good, if gloomy.

And here are the books I brought back for my kids:

Bea2

We've been working on the doodle books by Deborah Zemke, and the girls are excited to start the Clementine book. Ethan Zohn, of Survivor fame, signed the Soccer World South Africa book. Memoirs of a Goldfish looks adorable, and I am looking forward to delving into the Art with Anything: 52 Weeks of Fun With Everyday Stuff book.

So that's what I got!