Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Author: Leslye Walton
Publisher & Release Date: Candlewick, March 25th, 2014
The Hook: This poignant, multi-generational not-really-YA-but-marketed-as-such debut is magical realism at its best.
The Lowdown (from Goodreads): 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.
Overall Impressions: I had the pleasure of experiencing this book last fall as part of a panel of booksellers who were reading middle grade and YA submissions by debut authors. We all loved this book, but we all agreed: it’s not really YA. With its generation-spanning storyline, multiple perspectives, and languid, magical tone, it doesn’t read like YA. It’s debatable whether the teenaged Ava Lavender is even the “main” character. However, all of the these arguments are moot when put up against the big question: Is it good? And it is. Wonderful, even. It’s the perfect crossover novel, in that it will appeal to older teens and adults alike, even those who don’t usually read YA.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender tells the stories of 4 generations of women, from Maman Roux, torn away from her French village to a filthy, turn-of-the-century Manhattan tenement, to her lovely, strange daughter Emilienne, who, after being thwarted in love and witnessing its dangerous effects on her 3 siblings, resigns herself to a loveless marriage with a baker named Connor Lavender. Together, they travel to Seattle, where they open a bakery, and where Emilienne gives birth to her headstrong daughter Viviane. As a teenager, Viviane gives birth to twins, silent and confusing Henry, and the astonishing, winged child, Ava. Together, this family of misfits changes their small, insular community in unimaginable ways.
The Highs: Oh, where do I begin? This book is beautiful. The language, the imagery, the characters… all of it, wonderful. But for the sake of specificity:
The language: If you hadn’t guessed from the title, Leslye Walton uses words beautifully. Her descriptions are pefect: compelling, but never overly wordy. Also, the multiple perspectives that she employs work perfectly: Ava’s story is written in a first-person perspective, but most of the book is written in third-person omniscient, which allows for intimate looks at the inner workings of the myriad characters. And speaking of…
The characters: I love all of the Roux/Lavender women, but they make up only a small part of the beautiful cast that Walton has created. The supporting cast of characters is remarkable, and their stories are related through wonderful vignettes.
The imagery: This book is suffused with magic, both natural and inexplicable. Walton deals with the magic of food, of a mother’s love, of love dark and unrequited, as well as the literal magic of a girl born with wings, and of ghosts and spirits.
Buzzkills: For me, personally, I felt like the book was too short, and I wonder if perhaps that was the fault of the rewriting that preceded it being shopped as a YA novel, rather than the adult novel it was originally written to be. It’s only 360 pages [ETA: the finished version is only 301 pages!], and I would have happily read twice as much if it meant that I got more insights into the lives of Walton’s characters.
Also, and this is the biggie, this book has some dark and disturbing imagery. There’s some pretty awful violence and a truly horrifying rape sequence. It’s these, along with the generally adult tone of the novel, that would make me hesitate to put it in the hands of a younger teen.
The Source: Advance copy from the publisher
Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor French pastries were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.