The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
301 pages (hardcover)
I am a big fan of magic realism (aka magical realism). When done well, it is vivid and captivating and beautiful. Passages like this (from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) make me swoon:
As soon as José Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.
It translates well to movies, too. I have a soft spot for movies where magic is plopped right next door to the mundane (like this gem from 1990):
I am also a sucker for YA books. So, I was excited when I read this blurb about The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender on Buzzfeed’s “15 YA Novels To Watch Out For This Spring”: “When you mix YA with magical realism, the results are often, well, magical. Thus, I’m intrigued by this debut in which a girl born with bird wings struggles to understand herself and the complexities of love.” And when I saw the beautiful cover, I was sold.
As far as magic realism is concerned, this book does not disappoint. In fact, the quirky and beautiful moments of magic realism are where the book shines:
- A girl turns herself into a canary to catch the eye of “an older gentleman with a fondness for bird watching”;
- A mother slowly begins to disappear (“[S]he reached out to take hold of her mother’s hand. Her fingers slipped right through, as if passing through a wisp of steam.”) until all that is left of her is a pile of ashes;
- A man suffering from unrequited love is filled with so much hope the first time the woman he loves says his name that “he grew another two inches just to have enough room to hold it all”;
- A young boy regularly converses with the dead (but not the living).
Sadly, these moments are usually too fast and fleeting. I wish there had been more moments of magic realism, because they lighten and sweeten an otherwise heavy and tragic tale.
Although the title suggests that the “sad and beautiful sorrows” are Ava’s alone, they are actually shared in equal measure by four generations of women in Ava’s family:
- Maman (no one knows here real name), who follows her husband Beauregard from France to New York with their four children (Emilienne, Réne, Margaux, and Pierette) in search of a better life, and then slowly disappears;
- Emilienne, who travels west with her husband just prior to his death, has one baby (Viviane), opens a bakery, and is regarded as a witch for her unique abilities (She is “more sensitive to the outside world than other people . . . An owl hoot was an omen of impending unhappiness. A peculiar noise heard three times at night meant death was near.”);
- Viviane, whose heart is broken by her first love (and baby daddy), who fiercely protects her odd twins, Henry and Ava; and
- Ava, a normal girl born with flightless bird wings.
The women in Ava’s family carry the special burdens and suffer the unique pains that only love can elicit. The book culminates in the particular (and particularly tragic) sorrows of the teenage Ava Lavender, but by the time you get there, you understand that heartbreak and tragedy are a family birthright.
This is a book that should have been great, great, great. And, in many ways, it was. You can’t go wrong with a baby born with bird wings and creepy stalkers and ghosts foretelling the future. The writing overall is lovely, and the elements of magic realism are winning.
The problem: Walton bit off a bit more than she could chew. Four generations of heartbreak (not to mention a bunch of love and loss and violence and friendship and redemption) is a lot to cover in 300 pages. A bit too much, in fact. Many of the more interesting plot points were handled too cursorily.
The characters in this book are unique and quirky and tragic and interesting . . . but because there are so darn many of them, it’s hard to care particularly about any of them. When the number of characters with unique gifts and quirks is in the double digits, the characters cease to seem as individually special.
That said, if you’re a fan of magic realism and YA books, this is definitely one worth checking out.
Who should read it: Mom (i.e., fans of quirk, magic, and YA books).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (the most recent novel by the author of A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner; an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2013; Paris Review‘s Best of the Best for 2013)
- Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch (My brother and I were lucky enough to get reservations at Per Se . . . and we’re going SOON! I’m reading this book, written by a former Per Se server, in preparation for and in anticipation of our meal.)