I have tried to write this recommendation in a number of ways. Telling too much about the plot will ruin your experience as a reader; I think the summaries in all the usual places give too much away. Yet, I know you’ll want to know something about the book I’m recommending — that’s why you’re here, after all. It’s not enough to say: “here is The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. Go read.”
If you’re as shallow as me, maybe that gorgeous cover is enough to draw you in, if not, I shall try to help. Let me begin where Ava does, because I don’t think it will hurt you to know a few things. First, Ava Lavender is the narrator of the story and she takes pains to tell you that the tale she’ll tell has been well researched, though perhaps biased, as it is about her own family. In trying to understand herself and the events that occurred the year she turned sixteen, she has to go back to the beginning, starting with her great grandparents’ immigration to America from France.
Ava takes us on a transatlantic, transcontinental journey through time to tell us how the story of her strange and beautiful family came to shape the events of her life. In the prologue, Ava reveals that she wants to explain the consequences of being a girl born with a set of feathered wings. She says,
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.
Walton’s ability as a storyteller is strong. Every snippet of a promise those opening words make is fulfilled. After I finished the novel, I was impressed with the way each part of the story clicked into place, solving the mystery the prologue lays out. Though the backstory of Ava’s family takes almost a full half of the book before getting to the real action, it’s never pointless. Every bit of the story Ava tells is used. Each piece of information given adds up to one climactic and devastating moment.
And that moment shocked me. The nature of Walton’s storytelling and the voice she gives Ava doesn’t quite jive with the intensity of the horrific climax. This seems intentional. Ava, being a sixteen year old girl at the time of this event didn’t see it coming, but careful readers will know. The signs are there. Still, let me say this, if tragic, incidental violence bothers you, this might not be the book for you. But the violence is not gratuitous. In fact, as I look at it now, it fits. Tragically, horrifically, it fits.
Ultimately, this is a story about femininity. It’s about the ways in which women are mothers, wives, lovers, friends, sisters and children. It’s about the way that strangeness in a woman often evokes fear, mistrust and sometimes violence. This is a story about powerful love and acceptance. It’s about listening to yourself and keeping good watch. It’s a reminder that pain can lead to love and renewal. It’s a powerful testament to women’s resilience.
I’d recommend this book to lovers of magical realism. Fans of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake* and Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic will find a new favorite in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.
Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, reader, teacher and lover of tea and a fat cat named Winnie. Find her on twitter or her website.
*If you’d like to read a recommendation for Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, we’ve got one right here.