It is 1969, the height of free love and peace sit-ins and the Vietnam War. If America is on the brink, so is the life of 16-year-old Lucy Gold, a suburban Boston girl trying to find her place in turbulent times.

The star-struck dreamer runs off with her much-older high school English teacher, a handsome predator who whisks her away to a lonely house in rural Pennsylvania where she's told to spend her days writing and living off the land while he teaches in a free-thought school nearby. Her lover turns from manipulator to captor, and as the months wear on, Lucy realizes she's made a tragic mistake.

Before fleeing Boston, Lucy left her family a note. "I love you but I have to do this," it reads, giving no hint of where she's gone or with whom. "Please don't worry."

That terse message throws two lives into despair: Charlotte, Lucy's older sister, and Iris, the woman who has raised the sisters. They each blame themselves for Lucy's disappearance and want desperately to get her back. Their search is set against chilling events of the day, the Charles Manson murders still fresh in the news.

Leavitt paints her characters with deep flaws and yet hugely redeeming qualities. The writing is rich and real and provocative, with scenes that bring tears of sadness and of joy as we watch America struggle with its growing pains and wonder if our young protagonist will make it through her own.

This is the 11th novel for Leavitt, author of the 2011 bestseller "Pictures of You," and her literary momentum shows no signs of slowing.

Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.

Cruel Beautiful World
By: Caroline Leavitt.
Publisher: Algonquin Books, 357 pages, $26.95.