Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release: March 27, 2014
Magical realism, lyrical prose, and the pain and passion of human love haunt this hypnotic generational saga.I dislike magical realism. At least, that is what I thought after reading "A Very Large Man With Enormous Wings"—an awkwardly-written short story full of silly details that pulled me out of the plot and tried too hard to make a point—in sophomore year English. It was my first encounter with the genre, and it left me with such annoyance that I swore it would be my last.
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.
Imagine my reluctance, then, to pick up The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, another story featuring a winged protagonist. When I first stumbled upon this book, I saw the phrase "magical realism" and immediately tuned out, ignoring the gorgeous cover and the emotions glowing from the blurb alone. But then, as the effusive reviews piled up, I caved.
And I am so glad I did. Leslye Walton's debut completely changed my opinion of the magical realism genre.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender accomplished this feat by putting the "real" in magical realism. Before reading this book, I refused to believe magical realism could ever seem believable; in a fantasy world, magic can be portrayed as common, but in our world, practicing magic openly is laughable. However, Walton's threads of magic flow effortlessly and naturally, seeming just as real as more mundane aspects of the story. The author makes the supernatural feel realistic by refraining from huge, plot-shattering uses of magic. Instead, she merely bestows various characters with larger-than-life traits—wings, the ability to make people cry with a single touch, the ability to die by dissolving into dust—that emphasize real character traits—a desire to fly, perpetual sadness, and a feeling of hopelessness. As a result, each magical description feels almost like an extra-vivid metaphor, and I had no problem visualizing each one and slipping into the story.
This story's magical realism also works because it shares the stage with two other genres, historical fiction and romance, and Walton executes both brilliantly. An epic love story that spans the length of generations, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender opens on Ava's grandmother as she journeys from France to Manhattan and follows the family until Ava's teenage years in the 1950s and 60s. As the story progresses, a thread of sorrow spears through each woman's story—Ava's grandmother, Ava's mother, and Ava—as each is unlucky in love. These aspects of the story captivated me even more than the magical one, from the historical details to the brilliantly-portrayed emotions that accompany love of all varieties. Most of all, I adored the slow, descriptive build of a decades-long story that tells the interconnected tales of parent and child.
This slow build creates a bit of a pacing problem towards the end, however. The plot climaxes with only about 30 pages left, so while Walton fully fleshes out every other aspect of the story, the resolution seems slightly underdeveloped and rushed. I wish the author had added a chapter or two and written an ending as languid and descriptive as the rest of the story.
Still, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender absolutely lives up to its title; it is very strange, and very, very beautiful. And not only that—Walton's debut changed my opinion of an entire genre. I will remember it for years to come, both as an impressive tale and as a book that reminded me to give the unfamiliar a chance rather than discounting a genre as a whole after one sour experience. Like her winged protagonist, Walton may be just a girl, but her debut has me convinced that she, like all of her characters, has a hint of magic running through her blood.
P.S.—If you haven't yet, make sure to check out my giveaway for a recently-released contemporary. It ends tomorrow, so be sure to get your entries in!