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

Author: Leslye Walton 
Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Length: 301 pages
Genre: Young adult/magical realism
Why I Read: Description sounded fantastic
Read If You’re: New to magical realism or YA
Quote: “After failing every other attempt to get the ornithologist to notice her […] Pierette took the extreme step of turning herself into a canary” (14).
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsIndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I finished this book near the beginning of June. It’s taken me weeks to write this review because I kept lending it to people. This is my favourite read of the year so far.

Before I discuss the story, I want to note that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a fantastic example of young adult fiction that does not hold to the usual tropes and conventions of the genre.  I thought about not labelling this book as YA, but I think both people who only love YA or only love literary fiction should try out this book. The book doesn’t feel like YA to me, aside from the teen protagonist. I read a few interviews with Leslye Walton where she mentions that she did not intend to sell the book as young adult. She notes, “I actually didn’t write it with the intention of selling it as Young Adult because there isn’t a lot of strong literary YA out there, not that there isn’t any” (The Poetics Project interview; click for more).

I think this could be a good read for those unsure about magical realism, or for those who want to give it a try. Magical realism is “a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment” (Wiki).  There are light touches (i.e., don’t have major impact on the plot/major component of the plot) of magical realism throughout the first part of the novel, until Ava’s birth.  Ava’s wings are the major instance of magical realism in the book, yet they are not treated as wholly unremarkable. Most characters find her wings fascinating and unusual but don’t seek reasoning for them.

The book’s titular character only begins to feature a third of the way through the story – first we are introduced to her grandmother and mother. I enjoyed this generational approach. It was not as sentimental or nostalgic or romanticized as it might have been. Emilienne and Viviane are as fascinating and well-developed as Ava. They take a less prominent role when Ava starts to tell her story, but they remain present and active.

Other characters will grasp your attention just as well. I found myself frightened of Nathaniel (rarely am I truly frightened of a character), who initially appears to be very grounded – perhaps this is why he is so frightening. I read Henry, Ava’s twin brother, as autistic but given the genre of the story his peculiarities seem to be part of the magic (which might raise thoughts on what’s truly real, or magical, or abnormal…).

I haven’t yet mentioned the prose, which is another area where Walton shines. I doubt my own words could do it justice so here is a random passage (I literally opened up the book and wrote down the first paragraph I saw…it’s perhaps not the most magical or stunning but it gives you a good taste of the rhythm and style of the prose):

In the end, Viviane all but raised herself – meals were yesterday’s pastries; baths and bedtimes were rarely enforced. Her childhood was spent amid the scents and sounds of the bakery. It was her sticky fingers that topped the Belgian buns with glazed cherries, her hands that warmed the pie dough. As a toddler, she could easily whip up a batch of profiteroles, standing on a chair and calmly filling each choux pastry with cream. With barely a sniff of the air, Viviane Lavender could detect the slightest variation in any recipe – a talent that she would perfect in later years. Yes, Viviane spent many hours in the bakery. Her mother barely acknowledge she was there. (53)

Please noteThe next paragraph contains spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

The only part of the novel that I thought fell short of the rest of the story was the denouement. I thought the assault scene itself was well-written: intense and painful without being graphic. However, Ava’s recovery is practically non-existent. She narrates the story from a personal perspective but suddenly the reader receives little of how she feels, how this event affects her beyond physical consequences. Perhaps we the readers are now cut off from her because of her suffering?

The Bottom Line: A lyrical, sorrowful novel straddling the boundaries of magical realism, literary fiction, and young adult. Plot, characters, and prose are all in strong form. Highly recommended.

Elsewhere: