Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

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April 10, 2014 by Heidi

Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava LavenderTitle: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender [Goodreads]
Author: Leslye Walton [Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: March 25th, 2014 by Candlewick
Format: Hardcover; 320 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley.

Magical realism, lyrical prose, and the pain and passion of human love haunt this hypnotic generational saga.

Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird.

In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.

That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo.

First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.

From the moment I entered the home of the Roux family, I found myself charmed by its sense of commonplace magic.  Leslye Walton’s debut novel, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, is more than the story of a girl, even a girl so uniquely normal as she.  It is a story of generations of heartsore women, of family, of love, and loss.  In fact, it is a story in which the titular character, Ava Lavender, is not even born for nearly half of its pages.

To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale.  Some considered me a monster, a mutation.  To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel.  To my mother, I was everything.  To my father, nothing at all.  To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost.  But I knew the truth–deep down, I always did.  I was just a girl.

In an attempt to express her tale in full, Ava Lavender takes us back three generations to her grandmother’s birth in France.  Through the years, as the Roux family immigrates to the U.S., it is shown that there is only one way to love–fiercely.  Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne, loses her father to a jealous mistake, her mother to the nothingness of solitude, and each of her siblings to broken hearts in one form or another.  After losing her own heart three times, Emilienne determines it is better to have never to have loved at all.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender holds a meandering sort of narrative, one which lovers of Big Fish or Amelie may adore.  It presents magical realism as practical and commonplace, the only sensible reaction a family could have in a world with characters such as these.  It is a world where the sight of one man’s naked buttocks can create a hysteria-fueled riot, where a sad baker’s pastries can make customers weep for days, or where hope can fill one so full as to literally expand several inches to withstand it.  Like Ava Lavender herself, this book holds a whimsical beauty to be used to its best affect.

While the narration holds the power to enfold and pluck at any wistful reader’s heart, it is, alas, the core plot of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender that is its weakest point.  I found myself completely taken with the multi-generational story of the Lavender women.  I loved their quirks and affinities for symbols, scents, and for exhibiting love in magical and visible ways.  But when it came to Ava’s sorrows, I just wasn’t interested.  It almost felt as if Walton created this whole wondrous platform through which she could talk about love, but felt as if she needed some driving dark incident behind it all as a motivator for the telling.  And maybe she did–but I like to believe The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender could have been something more without the dark pages and journal entries from Nathaniel Sorrows.

With this debut, Walton achieves what I believe she set out to do–express “the logic, or rather, lack thereof, in love–the ways we coax ourselves to love, to continue loving, to leave love behind.”  But in the twisted reaches of Nathaniel Sorrow’s mind, we learn nothing of love, only obsession.  It is through the remaining characters, some obvious, many not, that these forms of love are shown.

In fact, I’m not at all certain that the given title is appropriate whatsoever.  Largely because I’m not at all certain that this book is really about Ava Lavender.  Certainly, she provides us a stunning narration, but she is so far from our sole concern (or, personally, even my main concern) that it almost seems silly.  I suppose no more silly than stating that one’s biggest complaint about a book they very nearly loved was the plot, but there you go.

Despite the unnecessary dredges of religious and sexual obsession that arise, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender has so much to offer.  It takes place in a time just recent enough to be barely out of reach, and a place that is oh-so-familiar to those of us who have lived some years in the Pacific Northwest.  In fact, this book exhibits a love for that sector of our country that I believe only those who grow up there can truly understand (I am not one of those who relishes a good drenching).  It is a story that is both bittersweet and hopeful, melding generations together and creating a crossover appeal between young adults and adults as we see one become the other through events of heartbreak and fortitude.  And yes, it is pure and simply weird.  I adore weird.  Weird is what brings so many of us to the gates of speculative fiction and entices us not to leave.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender defies fate, reason, and gravity.  It is about a girl born with wings who cannot fly, her mother doomed to love for 28 years, and her grandmother who, though not a witch, would hold a certain power over the neighborhood.  It is about the men in their lives, the boys with whom they fell in love, the brothers who protected them, and the fathers who were never there.  All in all, it is a strange and beautiful book about strange and beautiful women.  I very much look forward to reading what Leslye Walton thinks up next.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Almost definitely.  Walton has a ton of potential as a writer, and I’d really like to see her meet it.

Recommended for:  Lovers of magical realism and weird charm ala Big Fish or Amelie. 

Get a second opinion:
Good Books and Good Wine – “The best comparison I can think of for this book is to say Walton’s writing style reminded me a lot of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel in that there’s magical realism and the fantastic happens and as a reader you are amazed but at the same time might say ‘seems legit’.”
So Obsessed With – “As much as I wanted to like The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I couldn’t get past how bizarre the story and characters were for most of the book. I felt the story lacked direction, and I was never entirely sure where it was headed or, more importantly, why it was headed that way.”
A Reader of Fictions – “In fact, I think what happened in some of Ava’s plot line is probably the only thing that left me cold. Her story with Nathaniel Summers was uncomfortable, and not necessarily in a good way.”

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7 comments »

  1. That cover is OUT OF THIS WORLD, though. So beautiful.

    How interesting that the core plot is the weak point – but I’m glad you highlight that. I’d take solid characters and a weak plot over the inverse ANY day.

    • Heidi says:

      Isn’t the cover gorgeous? It’s so eye catching, and if you see it in person it’s even better (nice texture on the blue, feather actually sparkles).

      But YES, this is one of those cases where the characters were so fantastic I didn’t mind that the plot was weak. The characters really were the story for me.

  2. Like you, I really enjoyed the gorgeous writing, but also think the title is misleading. I also made the Big Fish comparison. :)

    Oooh, yes, the Nathaniel Sorrows plot was not built out enough. His obsession felt so arbitrary, and where the rest of the novel had a quiet grace, those bits went by so quickly. It was rather jarring. I also wouldn’t have minded a bit more about Ava’s relationship with the adorable stuttering guy.

    “Despite the unnecessary dredges of religious and sexual obsession that arise” <- THIS

    • Heidi says:

      Right? I think that she had a great story there without the whole Nathaniel Sorrows bit. I would have liked more of Ava with the adorable stuttering guy too.

  3. Alyssa says:

    This was such a good review!! I have been worried about this because I have found recently that I do not love magical realism but I have heard SUCHHH good things about this book so I kept it on the TBR! I think that I will definitely move it up on the pile since you loved the characters so much!!

  4. Melanie says:

    Is this a stand-alone or a beginning of a new series?

    I love stories with multi-generational aspects to them.

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