Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: March 25th 2014 by Candlewick Press
Source: Publisher (Random House Canada)
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.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender does many things but most of all it establishes its author, Leslye Walton, as someone to look out for. The novel is about the titular character, Ava Lavender, who is born with a pair of wings but without the divinity that is usually a prerequisite of wings and a human shape. The novel opens with a beautiful prologue that sets the tone of the story and alerts the reader of the whimsical nature of the novel.
There is a lot of beauty in the novel; the language is rich and luxurious, the characters are portentous and time moves with the consistency of molasses. Events, horrific and heartbreaking events, occur but Walton maintains a distance from the realities of it all but more about that later. The novel is largely told in prose with very little dialogue to give texture to the narrative. The presence of the narrator is dominant and I am not sure whether I liked that because as a reader, I was always aware that I was being told a story and not that I was experiencing the events for myself. In other words, I was unable to immerse myself entirely in the narrative due to the nature of the storytelling.
The book is very similar in tone to Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: Walton makes use of magical realism to weave together the fantastic and the daily and like Esquivel, uses food to express emotions or evoke emotions from others. The novel is also mostly about women though men and boys wander through like the narrative. Ava’s grandmother is particularly fascinating to me and I loved her arc in the story; Ava’s mother, I was not too fond of us and I wanted to see so much more of Ava’s brother than I was able to. The romance is not my favourite and I am not sure if it even needed to be present, because I feel that the narrative may have been stronger without it – but that’s a matter of personal taste. The strongest part of the book are the female friendships, especially between the women who work in the bakery.
The main conflict in the story is not as convincing as I had hoped it would be. The reason for that is probably because the antagonist is not as wholly developed as it could have been. I felt that the antagonist was more of a construction and a superficial construction than a thoroughly individuated character. The climax of the novel is brutal and I am still not convinced that it was necessary. There are two Avas present in the story; the older version who is telling the story and the younger one whose story is being narrated. There should be a marked difference in their voices due to the difference in their ages and experiences and while there is, sort of, I couldn’t get a sense of the younger Ava because of the narrative style. I wasn’t allowed to discover anything about her. I was told stuff about her and that affected how I feel about the story.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the book; it is beautifully told and the language it uses to tell its story won me over. However, the pacing goes awry at times and the plot is thin. I do recommend it to everyone who likes pretty writing though because The Sorrows of Ava Lavender is nothing if not a little bit magical.