Announcing our March book! Our next pick is Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt . As with all of our choices, this was one of my ABSOLUTE favorites of last year.
It’s 1969, and sixteen-year-old Lucy is about to run away to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte’s youth has been marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare.
Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, and explores what happens when you’re responsible for things you cannot fix.
Caroline will be joining me live at my home – hooray – on March 15th at 8pm, where we will be chatting about the book, the writing life, and answering your questions.
She says about the book: When I was 17, a friend of mine was murdered by her much older, more controlling boyfriend–someone she had been with for five years. I never forgot it, but until I was in a controlling relationship of my own years later (Google my story “The Grief Diet,”) I couldn’t understand how someone could stay. I set the novel in 1969 and 1970, the time when the peace and love movement began to turn ugly, when Woodstock turned into Altamont and the Manson murders. The novel is so much about how we yearn to fix things and fix people, but sometimes we cannot, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes all you can do is step back and let life wash over you.
A little while ago, I had half a novel completed. I had thoroughly enjoyed the first half, but had reached a point where I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, and then life got in the way, and it started to feel more and more difficult to sit down and write.
I kept coming up with excuses. My life was so busy! There were columns for The Lady that needed to be written! The house was too cold to get out of bed! My hair was the wrong colour! Clearly, my excuses were no longer working, and I needed to make a change.
Years ago, before I started writing, I thought that my muse would strike on a daily basis. I imagined writing to be the most deeply romantic of professions, presuming I would leap out of bed from time to time, inspired, spending the rest of the night huddled in front of my computer, typing furiously as the words flowed through my fingertips.
There are, admittedly, some days like this, but after twenty three years of writing novels, they are few and far between. Also, it has never happened at night, probably because I like my bed far too much to leave it for anything other than a couple of barking dogs who some children have forgotten to lock inside for the night, and even then, I tend to lie there for at least ten minutes, praying that they will miraculously shut up all by themselves. I do keep a notebook next to my bed, just in case brilliance does strike, but usually, when I read it in the cold light of day, it is nonsensical. Truly. The kind of gobbledegook you can only write when you are actually still half-asleep.
What I have learned, after all these years, is that the only way a novel gets written, even when (perhaps especially when) you feel stuck, is to sit down and write it. And so, a few weeks ago I left my house every morning, drove to my office, left my phone (the distraction to end all distractions) in the car, and wrote.
I wrote even when I had no idea what I wanted to say. I wrote when I thought my characters had run out of steam. I wrote because writing is my job, and couldn’t procrastinate any longer, and I needed to feel the high of having written, rather than the constant guilt at putting it off.
And, as always, the magic happened. The characters woke up, as did I. Their lives got busy, and it became a pleasure, coming in to the office every day, looking forward to seeing what they would do next.
Towards the end, I started tearing up, which is when I know I have something good. When I get emotional at something my characters are going through, I know my readers will too, and last Friday, when I finally typed The End, I felt enormously proud of myself for finishing my twentieth novel, even when, at times, it felt like I didn’t know what to say.
Of course, the work is only beginning now. I am taking a week away from the manuscript so I can return with slightly fresher eyes, and then the edits will begin. I will read through and check the rhythm of the words, build up one of the characters, move a dramatic plot point to earlier in the book.
But I am almost there, and the having written, even after twenty novels, is just as sweet today as it was all those years ago.
Part of my adjusting to my new hair color has involved me changing my make-up, which I am realizing is far easier said than done.
I once knew a woman who continued wearing her brunette hair down to her waist, with heavy dark eyes and pale lips, into her seventies. It looked absolutely terrible, but no one had the heart to tell her how dated she looked.
I realize I have essentially been doing my make-up (and my hair) in exactly the same way for years. I will happily adjust my hair color, and I am worried that I am reaching the age where I am beginning to consider going short. Not short short, but shorter. Perhaps a style rather than boring old long hair. I’m reaching an age where a fringe seems like an awfully good idea. Far less expensive than Botox, and surely just as effective?
My eyebrows were plucked into submission some years ago, and of course have never grown back in quite the same way. I now spend hours with an eyebrow pencil every day. Some days, they look magnificent. On others, I look like Liz Taylor on overdrive, and this is not a good look.
I regularly find myself poring over pictures of the Kardashians, wondering how their eyebrows look like that, and after I dyed my hair back to dark, when everyone told me I needed darker make-up, I found a make-up tutorial on YouTube which promised me that I would look like Kylie Jenner.
Oh reader, this was fun. I spent an hour contouring (the contouring! So much contouring!), blending, dabbing, brushing. I put brown eyeshadow under my cheekbones (one must make do with what one has), and pale above, then blended furiously so I didn’t look like I had been rolling around in a muddy field.
I lightly sketched in my eyebrows so they were perfectly arched, with actual sides (that was the weird bit with the over-plucking – the sides were the only bits that never grew back at all). I added gold sparkly stuff to my eyelids, and drew my lips on with lip liner in a way that made them look bigger and poutier than ever before.
No longer was Cher staring back at me in the mirror. Nor, it has to be said, was a Kardashian. It was me, only much, much more glamorous. My cheekbones were so pronounced I was worried I might cut myself on them. My lips were positively pillow-y, and my eyes were dark and smouldering (helped somewhat by the magnetic lashes that I have now decided are genius).
If only I had the time to do this every day! I almost didn’t wash it all off because I’m quite sure my cheekbones may never look like this again, but I took the obligatory selfie, so I can always remember that I too can look Kardashianesque, with a few spare hours and an awful lot of make-up.
In the meantime, I shall be going back to the make-up I’ve always had, and the hair I’ve always done, and I will pray that it all stays on trend for just a while longer.
And now, we are announcing our February pick. We will be reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, and Chloe will be joining us live on www.facebook.com/janegreenbookclub on February 15th at 8pm.
It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.
The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.