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October 7, 2016

Book Notes - Caroline Leavitt "Cruel Beautiful World"

Cruel Beautiful World

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Caroline Leavitt's novel Cruel Beautiful World is an engaging literary thriller set in the early '70s.

Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:

"Deeply resonant and quietly powerful, Cruel Beautiful World has the heart-pounding moments of athriller and the heart-warming moments of a perfect coming-of-age story."

In her own words, here is Caroline Leavitt's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Cruel Beautiful World:

Okay, so I am no spring chicken (I prefer to think of myself as a fall chicken), and yes I was young in the late '60s and early '70s, where my novel Cruel Beautiful World, about a runaway young girl and her older boyfriend, and the sister desperate to find her, unfolds. I immersed myself in research. I swear I could smell Love's Baby Soft and feel the brush of too-long bellbottoms by my always-bare feet. Of course, I listened to lots of music as I was writing, some from that period just to time travel a bit, but a few songs that just had the right emotional kick for me.

"San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair)"—Scott McKenzie
The quintessential hippie love child song. This perky anthem perfectly captures the whole loopy flower child era and the Summer of Love, when everyone was hitching out to San Francisco to be with all the "gentle people there" just because "there'll be a Love-In there." I remember first hearing this song and just aching to be old enough to go to California in love beads and lace. The song lyrics now seem unbelievably funny and naïve, but I can't hear this song without smiling because it was so much fun to be a true believer, even for a little while.

"Ohio"—Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

The flip-side of wearing flowers in your hair was brought home with the horror of Kent State in the '70s and students being gunned down as they peacefully protested the Vietnam War. I remember the banner unfurling from Columbia that said "They Can't Kill Us All," and we were all terrified, because what if they could? I fled Brandeis shortly after two older students got on the FBI's most wanted list for robbing a bank "for the revolution," and killing a cop, a father of nine, and landed in Madison in time for the National Guard in silver riot gear, tear-gassing us students. I don't think my heart ever beat more ferociously. What makes this song unbelievably great, besides the driving beat, is the pulse of hope. "We can change the world." Let's hope so.

"Young Girl"—Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
Oh yes, times have changed. Back when I first heard this song, I just loved the beat and it was a great song to sing along with and dance to. I never realized how truly creepy it really was (and neither did anyone else) until later. Listening to it while I was writing Cruel Beautiful World made me aghast. You have Puckett blaming a young girl because "my love for you is way out of line." But does he stop himself? Not a chance, because "that come-on look is in your eye." And to make things more horrifying, he tells her "you'd better run, girl." It made me wish I could listen to the music with different lyrics attached to it, but I used it in my books as a song that would make Lucy's much older boyfriend second-guess his choice of loving her.

"Walk Between Raindrops"—Donald Fagen
A lot of Cruel Beautiful World is about control--what we can control and what we can't, what we can prevent, and what we can escape. So to get myself in the frame of mind of someone in a controlling relationship, I dug out this song, which was the favorite of a guy I once lived with-- who was like my own private jailer. I hated the song. I hated the way he danced to it. I hated that he made me listen to it and when I said I didn't like it, he told me I didn't know good music, but he did and I would have to learn. When I was finally able to leave him, I told myself I'd never play it again, but I did when I needed to get into my character Lucy's head about how desperately she wanted to get away from William, her boyfriend. And I only could listen to it once. And not even all the way through.

"Those You've Known"—from Spring Awakening
If I had to only pick one song for the novel, it actually would be this one. It's not a typical Broadway song. Instead, like the show, it's haunting and bleak and yet there are fireflies of hope. Like my novel, it's all about loss, the kind where you feel there's nothing else you can do, but even so, you never give up trying to connect, even if it's with the dead. Okay, I admit some times when I listened to this, I cried.

"Rillo Talk"—Wild Child
This is one knockout gorgeous song, about yearning to make something right, when you know you've made it so terribly wrong, about a broken relationship you yearn to mend, which wasn't just the lovers in my novel, but the sisters as well. The chorus kept pulling at me. Plus, that line, "We'll build a life in these woods," is so much about my character William talking about his 1970s back-to-the-land paradise, which turns out to be more of a nightmare. Bonus fun fact: I love it because my son turned me on to it.

Caroline Leavitt and Cruel Beautiful World links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Tampa Bay Times review

Jane Friedman interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Pictures of You
Weekend Edition interview with the author
Women Writers, Women's Books interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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