A teenager runs away with her teacher — but there’s no happily ever after

Cruel Beautiful World. Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin. 352 pages. $26.95.
Cruel Beautiful World. Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin. 352 pages. $26.95.

Teenage girls run away from home every day. Back in the late 1960s, when Caroline Leavitt’s “Cruel Beautiful World” is set, they were running away even more, donning their love beads and bell-bottoms and sticking out a thumb on the side of the road, bound (at least theoretically) for Greenwich Village or Haight-Ashbury.

Leavitt’s new novel, her 11th (after bestsellers “Is This Tomorrow” and “Pictures of You”), focuses on what happens to one young girl who runs away — and the impact of her departure on the family she leaves behind.

Lucy Gold does not just set out hitchhiking, though. She has a plan. At age 16, at the end of the school year, she leaves her comfortable home in a Boston suburb and runs away with her 30-year-old English teacher.

William Lallo is the sort of teacher just about every girl gets a crush on at least once. In 1969, that means the long-haired teacher in jeans who moves the desks out of rows and rearranges them in an equalizing circle, the one who refers knowingly to the political turmoil of the times, the one who really seems to listen to the kids.

He certainly listens to lively, pretty blond Lucy. She’s an indifferent student, but his encouraging comments on her papers thrill her, and before you can say “bad idea” she’s sneaking out to meet him at his apartment.

Leavitt, who appears Nov. 19 at Miami Book Fair, gets the reader inside Lucy’s head so that we understand the mixture of rebellion and desire that makes William’s plan so enticing. They’ll run away, he says, cut all ties (although his ties to his teaching job have already been cut, whether he likes it or not). They don’t need anyone else, just each other. It will be so romantic.

He finds a new job in a tiny Pennsylvania town and rents a house on acreage out in the country, complete with chickens that scare Lucy half to death. They can get back to the land, he says, commune with nature — and lay low until Lucy turns 18 and their relationship is no longer criminal.

As that idyll turns ever more isolating and William more controlling, Leavitt builds suspense by intercutting Lucy’s story with those of her sister, Charlotte, and Iris, the woman who raised them. Charlotte is the older sister, the sober and responsible one, and she has been Lucy’s protector since their parents died in a car crash when the girls were barely school age. They were sent to live with Iris, a relative of their father’s. A childless widow, she was as unprepared for the transition.

When Lucy vanishes, Charlotte “told herself there were things she could do, like make sure that Lucy’s bedroom window was open every night so that if Lucy came home, she could easily climb back in.” Months pass, and Charlotte starts college at Brandeis but struggles to concentrate, moves in and out of unhappy relationships, her little sister never far from her mind.

In a long section of the novel, Leavitt unspools Iris’ backstory, not only revealing exactly what her relationship to the girls is but also providing us a fascinating account of her marriage during World War II to a man she hardly knew and how very strange and satisfying that marriage turned out to be.

Leavitt builds her story around characters who are warm and engaging but very much flawed. The 1960s setting provides a few unsettling details that murmur in the background — the Manson murders, the Kent State shootings — but this is essentially the timeless story of a family, one that’s unorthodox and fractured but rings emotionally true.

Colette Bancroft reviewed this book for the Tampa Bay Times.

Meet the author

When: 2 p.m. Nov. 19

Where: Room 8303, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami