The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
When Ava Lavender is born, crowds gathered both to pray and to witness such a strange occurrence, a baby born with wings. With Ava’s birth, Leslye Walton plops readers into the center of a story that starts with Ava’s family’s whimsical and tragic past and stretches all the way into Ava’s childhood and teen years. It starts with her great grandparents immigrating from France with their three children to face many romanticized hardships in “Manhatine.” Ava’s grandmother enters a loveless marriage that at least allows her to leave New York and lands her in a small neighborhood in Seattle with a strange past of its own. The real story, which I will admit takes quite a tad to long to get to, belongs to Ava who has been narrating this history of her family, and her part of the story no less romantic or ultimately tragic than that of her ancestors. As a child in the 1950s, she and her twin brother, who seems to have some kind of developmental delay though it’s never quite cleared up, are sheltered by her mother, not allowed to venture out beyond their yard for fear of how the other people in the neighborhood will treat them. When Ava starts to flirt with the religious zealot boy next door, she gains the confidence to sneak out with her best friend Cardigan to hang out with other teens. Things go well at first – Ava even starts to fall in love – but an obsession with her wings and the possibility of having his own real live angel has her neighbor wanting Ava all to himself.
I just cannot get over the strength of the writing and whimsical imagery that makes this book a wonderful example of magical realism. Characters can smell emotions, turn forever into birds, disappear into thin air, be born with wings (but never learn how to use them), and it’s only ever treated as quirky, or witchcraft at the most. Lines like “They didn’t notice how the clouds gathered and the rain fell in such torrents that the rats of the city flipped the cockroaches onto their backs, stepped aboard, and floated down the streets on tiny arthropod rafts” are tucked away in the folds of the story, like delightful little surprises. At the same time there are parts so heartbreaking that you can’t even save your crying for the end of the book. It’s a really impressive debut novel that Leslye Walton will have a hard time topping. I hope she does all the same.