One of the ways in which I know a book is good – or, perhaps, that it’s resonating with me – is that I read it with a pack of post-its to hand, ready to mark particularly beautiful passages or memorable quotes.
My copy of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is festooned with such ribbons of remembrance.
This book took me by surprise. I heard its author, Leslye Walton, speak at the recent CBI conference, and – perhaps as a result of the conference’s focus on children’s and YA books – I had expected Ava Lavender to be a more ‘typical’ YA novel. This is despite the fact that Ms Walton several times referred to her work as ‘magical realism’, and so I should have been prepared for it to be wonderful, otherworldly and captivating. I guess I forgot that, and it was all to the good in terms of my reading experience.
The novel begins with a letter penned by the 70-year-old Ava, telling us that she is going to relate ‘the story of [her] young life as [she remembers] it’ (p. xi), and she tells us from the get-go that she was born in March, 1944, with the wings of a bird. These wings – speckled, beautiful, an intrinsic part of her skeleton and circulatory system – create different reactions among the people who encounter Ava throughout her singular life, but throughout it all Ava knows the truth about herself – she is ‘just a girl’ (p. vii).
But before we even get to any of that, the book sweeps back to the beginning of the twentieth century and tells the story of Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne, a young Frenchwoman brought to America by her idealistic father. He believes that he, his wife and four young children will have a better life in ‘Manhatine’ than they will en France. We learn of their fates in the years that follow their arrival, the tolls that life in New York take upon them and the various adventures, and crushing disappointments, and soaring beauties, which love visits upon them. Eventually, Emilienne (who, by now, has been left entirely alone in the world) marries Connor Lavender, whom she believes to be ‘a man [who] would have trouble leaving anywhere, or anyone for that matter’ (p. 29), and they move to Seattle, settling in a strange house which was built for a semi-mythical child named Fatima Ines de Dores many years before. The reader is then swept into Fatima’s story for a time before the narrative weaves us back into the lives of the Lavenders, and the strange town in which they find themselves living.
In time, Emilienne gives birth to Viviane, a baby who grows up largely ignored in the midst of her parents’, and eventually her mother’s, bakery. Viviane, too, falls in love as she grows, and finds the experience one which shackles her to home instead of freeing her to follow her heart wherever she wishes to go. When she is unexpectedly made pregnant, and gives birth in due course to Ava and her twin brother Henry, there is already a love in her life which she cannot see or appreciate and which she risks losing forever unless she opens her eyes to it – but her old love, the one which imprisons her, refuses to relinquish its hold on her.
You won’t have missed the fact, of course, that all this happens before Ava Lavender is even born. The fact that a girl with wings, and her twin brother who does not speak, yet knows what’s truly going on in his family, are characters in this novel is just another jewel in its crown. This is a book stuffed with wonders, and I’m still not sure whether I am sad or glad that Ava, and her wings, almost seem normal in this cast of unique and engraved-upon-your-heart-at-first-glance characters.
An oft-repeated refrain in the novel is ‘Love makes us such fools’, and that’s one of its main themes. Love which beautifies and disfigures us, love which elevates and enervates, love which destroys and which bestows life – all those loves, and more, are in this book.
Here’s a quote I stickered with gusto:
By this point Viviane Lavender had loved Jack Griffith for twelve years, which was far more than half of her life. If she thought of her love as a commodity and were, say, to eat it, it would fill 4,745 cherry pies. If she were to preserve it, she would need 23,725 glass jars and labels and a basement spanning half the length of Pinnacle Lane.
If she were to drink it, she’d drown. (p. 107)
I am not normally a fan of books about love (yeuch). I don’t do romance, usually. But this isn’t a romance novel, really; we’re not talking pages of swooning dialogue and creaking bodices and burning glances stolen across crowded ballrooms, or any of that old nonsense. We’re talking souls and fanaticism and obsession and devotion; we’re talking maternal and paternal and grandmotherly love, and the sort of love that persists between siblings, even long after death. We’re talking the sort of love that gets crushed between the grinding cogs of a bad marriage but which haunts an abandoned partner in their dreams, all the same. We’re talking friendship so profound that it overlooks difference.
This is a story about the effects of love, more than love itself. It’s written beautifully, it’s gorgeously spun, the characters are marvellous, and the ‘baddie’ suitably deranged and horrific. A climactic scene involving Ava and someone who has convinced themselves they ‘love’ her was mentally scarring to read; the rehabilitating power of ‘good’ love was, by comparison, a balm. The ending was perfect, if a little surprising.
Emily Dickinson once wrote: ‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’, and I think that’s what this novel has at its heart like a treasured secret. Ava is determined as much by her hope – that she will be happy, that she will be accepted, that she will find companionship of all kinds – as she is by her wings.
So, let’s just say I loved it – no pun intended. It’s a wonder. Read it as soon as you possibly can, and then buy a copy for someone close to you, and watch them as they read it.
Have a happy, and feathered, weekend, everyone.