March 11, 2014

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

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Published: March 25, 2014, Candlewick Press
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fantasy, Magical Realism
Source: From publisher via Netgalley
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I've been told things happen as they should: My grandmother fell in love three times before her nineteenth birthday. My mother found love with the neighbor boy when she was six. And I, I was born with wings, a misfit who didn't dare to expect something as grandiose as love. It’s our fate, our destiny, that determines such things, isn't it?
Perhaps that was just something I told myself. Because what else was there for me – a misfit, an untouchable, an outsider?
What could I say when I was alone at night and the shadows came? How else could I calm the thud of my beating heart but with the words: This is my fate. What else was there to do but blindly follow its path?

What drew me to this book was the promise of a story filled with magical realism. After reading works by some of its greatest contributors (Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez, to name a few), I’ve become quite fond of this literary subgenre. The magical realism genre is most commonly associated with Latin American literature, and that’s how I’ve come to associate it. It was with no small degree of excitement and trepidation, therefore, that I set out to read Walton’s debut.

Fortunately, I can attest to the fact that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a quiet, beautifully wrought tale and that does justice to the magical realism genre and also adds a historical United States perspective.

Ava Lavender is born with a pair of wings attached to her shoulder blades. The doctors inform her mother and grandmother that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to remove the infant’s wings, as they are fully attached to her body, veins, tendons, muscles, and all. And so Ava and her twin brother Henry are taken home to live a sheltered childhood with their mother Viviane, their grandmother Emilienne, and family friend Gabe in Seattle during the mid-1900s. But as strange as the circumstances surrounding Ava’s birth may be, they are only a small part of the peculiarities that surround her family.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender can be considered a coming-of-age tale, as protagonist Ava comes to accept the quirks in her life, from her own pair of wings to her brother’s strange speech patterns, to her mother’s incredible sense of smell, to Gabe’s attempts to build wings of his own to help Ava learn how to fly, to the ghostly siblings that haunt her grandmother. She comes to not only accepts hers and her family’s differences, but to become an agent of her own desires and wants. Fate, she learns, perhaps only plays as large a role in our lives as we allow it to.

This is more than simply Ava’s story, however; this is the story of her grandmother Emilienne and her mother Viviane. Around the turn of the century, Emilienne’s father Beauregard Roux decided to move their family from France, where he was a well-known phrenologist, to Manhatine in New York City. Unfortunately, finding prosperity in America isn’t as easy as he hoped it would be, and by her early twenties, Emilienne finds herself alone: her father, mother, and three siblings all dead from various causes. Emilienne decides to marry Connor Lavender and moves to Seattle with him, where Connor sets up his bakery. Emilienne isn’t necessarily content with her life circumstances but she’s trying to accept them. Her acceptance is made a little more difficult by the fact that she frequently sees specters of her three siblings as they looked upon their deaths.

This is also the story of Emilienne and Connor’s only child, Viviane, who spends most of her childhood growing up in the bakery her mother took over after her father’s death. With a mother who rarely shows affection and no other family nearby, Viviane has found happiness and validation through her friendship with classmate Jack Griffith. But the Great Depression, hints of a looming, greater conflict, and growing up all take their toll on their relationship.

All three generations of women have their own peculiarities, losses, and sorrows when it comes to love. But their stories are so much more than that, especially when taken together to form a cohesive whole. The Lavender women are survivors. Again and again the men in their lives fall into the background, forcing the women to develop a sense of purpose and agency within their own lives. Not one of them presents an ideal of life and womanhood, as Emilienne literally struggles with the ghosts of her past, Viviane’s obsession of her past causes her to ignore her present, and Ava worries that others will see her as a freak, should she leave her home. Individually, all three females have their fair share of issues, and for a large portion of the novel, they each suffer internally. Over the course of the novel, however, they come to realize how accepting the support of loved ones can not only ease their burdens, but the burdens of others as well.

As I mentioned earlier, the events in the story may be fantastical at times, but the story is told in a quiet, simple way. There’s a frame narrative at play here; at the very beginning Ava informs the reader that as an adult in the 1970s she has been researching her family history. This story is a result of her research, so it reads more like an oral tale or historical narrative at times. Ava knows the events, but any motives or emotions can be at least partially attributed to her personal interpretation. There’s a lot of telling – far more telling the readers scenes than showing them. But it works within the context of the story. It’s very clearly done deliberately, and to great effect.

As a work of historical fiction, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender leaves a bit to be desired. Walton has clearly tried to imbue her story with tidbits of historical facts here and there. The section on Viviane’s childhood, which dealt with the buildup and eventual breakout of World War II, feels the most like a work of historical fiction. There are mentions of the times throughout the book, but historical facts (and even historical veracity, perhaps) do not seem to be the focus of this book.

Walton’s debut is indeed a strange and beautiful tale. It’s also one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Amid so many young adult novels that feature similar plots, similar characters, and similar storylines, this is a welcome change indeed.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Disclaimer:I received this review copy from the publisher, but that in no way affected my opinion. The quote is from an advanced copy of the novel and is subject to change in the final edition.  
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I don't believe I've ever read a magical realism novel before, but I'm thinking I would really like to! This one really sounds unlike anything I have ever read and I LOVE that! I also especially enjoy books that take place across generations. Thank you so much for sharing, Amanda! This is the first review I've read for this one and I already know that I must try it out sometime!

    1. Do it! Magical realism is a genre that everyone should experience, even if only with one book. I think you'd like this one, so hopefully you get the chance to! I know I'll be interested in discussing it with you. :)

  2. I really enjoyed reading your review of this one! I think you were right when you mentioned in a comment on my review that your previous experience with Latin American magical realism gave you more realistic expectations for this book. I'm pretty sure the fact that I'd read stuff that was a bit lighter totally colored how I felt about this one. I was glad to get a different perspective on this book, and I can totally see how it worked better for you. I'm really glad you enjoyed this book!


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