The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.
Publisher: Candlewick Press
“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.”
The title will lead us all to believe this book is about Ava, and her struggles, and depending on who has read it, her destiny or undoing, and it is, for about half the book, but the first half is about her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, and the siblings, friends, and their loved ones. It is about the story of everyone in the family, from their immigration and subsequent childhood in America to finding love and the effects this will have on all of them, and of course, their deaths, most of which are tragic.
The beauty of this novel rests on these side characters, who no matter how small, or how few pages they get centered on them, manage to wiggle their way into our hearts. In such a small amount of time Walton manages to have well-written characters with fantastic stories, that will in some shape or form, connect to the main arc, in ways we might first suspect. This does not mean they steal the show, leaving Ava to simply be a connection between the lives of her ancestors. No, all stories are equally necessary for this novel, I could not imagine the book without one of these tales, no matter how much my eyes watered.
“Just because love don’t look the way you think it should, don’t mean you don’t have it.”
Love is the main theme of the story, and it has all of the ways it is displayed; not only sexuality, but abusive love, and unrequited, forsaken, familial, selfish, between friends, secret lovers, and even the hope of love, all more hurting than the next. It was the perfect glue to the story, the one main thread that leads everyone down a path of happiness once in a while, but mostly despair and sadness.
Love is usually represented in two ways when it comes to books targeted to “young adults,” the “I hate you but I love you,” and the “you’ve been my friend for so long and now I think I finally love you back,” this novel takes those and morphs them into more “realistic” and “accessible” romances. Yes, they are similar, but Walton makes us understand why they are experienced they way that they are without simply telling us that it is the status quo. There is a background and backdrop to the love shared or not shared between each character, she shows instead of only telling, it makes us yearn for more. We understand, and that is all a reader can ask of an author, to understand the real world through the pages of a novel.
“I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life’s ironies a bit more often than the average person. I collected them: how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn’t want to hurt you eventually would.”
The one thing I was displeased with in the novel was the use of astrology. I don’t believe in it and I find no backing for it to be so popular, but it is nonetheless. Therefore, whenever I see it in a novel, magical realism or not, it always puts me off a bit, it was the case with this brilliant piece of work as well, nothing could save this novel from me rolling my eyes at the scenes that dealt with it. Luckily for me it was a small part of the novel, enough to not make me hate the use, but enough to entrance those that do believe in it. A nice middle ground to appease both sides.
An important thing to understand when giving this magnificence a chance is that this is a magical realism book. I’ve read reviews and heard people say that it was too “out there” for them, that it was strange, that the characters were not “human enough” because of the choices they made after their hearts were broken, that the ending was “too open ended,” all valid, if this were not a tale of the strange, disturbing, and the magically accepting, with a sprinkle of rationality. It is not tales of long lost loves or Romeo and Juliet in the sense a romance novel is usually written, neither is it a contemporary story of a contemporary family, nor a Victorian or Edwardian novel; this is a fantasy tale with magical and disturbing events simply being a part of everyday life, whether it be being born with wings or becoming a bird, or having an odd sense of smell, and even the ability to see what others cannot. It is a tale of the odd always being ordinary, of people begin unfazed by strange things, of what has never been, being. I love it!
The ending is what broke me, and most likely broke everyone that got that far without crying. It is ambiguous enough for people to make two choices, either it ends with a little bit of happiness among dark events, or it sinks into us and ends with the destruction of all we held dear. I choose to believe the former, but there is a constant state of questioning what I choose to believe over what it could have meant.
I adore this book, and it has become one of those I revisit over and over, I get the feeling every time I read it, a new clue will come to light.
“I loved you before, Ava. Let me love you still.”
P.S. THIS NOVEL IS FILLED WITH TRIGGER WARNINGS FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT AND ABUSE, PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THIS BEFORE READING THE NOVEL.