Ava Lavender’s family has a history of tragic love stories. Her great-grandmother, Maman; grandmother, Emilienne; and mother, Viviane’s stories are all told through this generational saga exploring themes of love and love lost.
And then there is Ava, the girl born with wings, where the story truly takes shape. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is magical realism at its best.
“Older” Ava, our narrator, opens with a powerful prologue that instantly hooked me and set the perfect tone for the novel. She navigates through her family’s history—along with her own—with a lyrical prose that maintains a whimsical and traditional fairy tale feel despite the sorrowful themes. She tells multiple stories of not only her family, but of others who indirectly crossed paths with the women of the Roux/Lavender family, adding to the surreal experience. There are disappearing people, ghosts, birds, and a subtle magical thread weaving it all together that never feels logical nor out of place. There are times where I wasn’t sure if what Ava was telling me were true or fabrication, but it held an addictive quality that urged to me continue turning page after page late into the night.
The theme of love was an interesting one because while it does include stories of men and women, Walton, focuses primarily on the women of the Roux/Lavender family and the long term effects their failed relationships and mistreatment of men had on them. I’m not entirely sure if this was intentional or not, but my mind couldn’t ignore the common situations many women in real life go through depicted in the novel: loveless marriage, single parenting, sexual abuse, etc. For each of the women, naïveté is both their charm and curse. It’s their hope, willingness to give their hearts freely and complete trust that leads to their heartbreak. Ava is different from the other women since she appears to be more cautious due to her sheltered upbringing, however, even that ultimately leads to her downfall.
The villain felt both literal and metaphorical for me as a reader and where I feel the novel shines the brightest. There is a physical antagonist in the form of an evangelical stalker obsessed with Ava and her wings. But on a deeper level the villain also manifests as the women’s own sorrows and their inability to heal and move on from the past situations that led to so much pain. It leaves them broken, isolated from the community and guarded even from each other. It isn’t until “Younger” Ava’s tragedy that we start to really see a change in that aspect.
If I have one form of criticism it’s that I was hoping to find out more about “Older” Ava. Much of the novel involves relating “Younger” Ava’s family history all the way until after the climax, but we never really have a glimpse into what becomes of “Older” Ava. The prologue asks the question of where she came from she is since she’s born with wings and I was searching desperately for that answer, but it never came. Or at least in the way that I thought it would. But that’s just part of the novel’s charm—its answers always slightly out of reach, constantly maintaining the air of mystery. Perhaps there wasn’t an answer to actually give or it was just another metaphor for the family’s struggles. Or maybe what I really need to do is re-read the book because clearly Walton’s novel is not yet done with me.
Overall, I’m both impressed and dazzled by Leslye Walton’s debut. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a novel that has so many layers that it demands your attention. Written with the finesse of a seasoned writer, it’s stunning, magical, strange and, of course, very beautiful. Highly recommended.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is available now from Candlewick Press