If I wrote to tell you today that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is the tale of a young woman named Ava who becomes the victim of a crime, you’d probably yawn a bit, stretch and sigh, and say “There are lots of stories of that kind out there–why should I read one more?” But if I were to tell you that she had previously been mistaken as an angel by a whole Seattle neighborhood, perhaps you’d be a little more interested. And if I then told you that this is because she had wings, maybe I’d have you hooked. You’d say, perhaps, “Okay, then, I’ll read your crime story, and we’ll see just what this is really all about.”
Well, what it’s really all about, in the author Leslye Walton’s words, is this: the story is “inspired by a particularly long sulk in a particularly cold rainstorm spent pondering the logic, or rather, lack thereof, in love–the ways we coax ourselves to love, to continue loving, to leave love behind.” That sounds ordinary enough, doesn’t it? But then, Walton tells us that sulking in the rain is the general way she herself, like a daffodil, can achieve beauty, and our attention is drawn away from logic and towards the whimsical.
As you might guess, the crime is only in a minor way what the story is “about.” It’s a novel of magical realism, and passes continually to and fro between realistic descriptions and events and magical ones, in a nearly seamless flow that keeps one reading to see what miracle or odd happening will occur next. Some realistic odd happenings or conditions, such as Ava’s twin brother Henry’s not being willing to speak most of the time, are explained by his seer-like state; his main vision of doom and disaster turns out to be verified, not only in the attack upon his sister Ava, but also in the more realistic natural world’s symptoms of global warming, first a drought and then a flood of rains, connected in this story with magical happenings as well.
To begin at the beginning, however, the connection between Ava Lavender’s non-functional wings and her ancestry is quite clear: for at least a third of the novel, before we ever even meet her mother, we are in the equally magical world of her immediate forebears, her maternal great-grandfather Beauregard Roux, who moves his family to the New World and into his beloved “Manhatine,” followed by her grandmother Emilienne and her siblings René, Margaux, and Pierette. The connection with both birds and ghosts is fairly constant throughout the novel also: great-aunt Pierette, upon having fallen in love with an older man who liked bird-watching, turned herself into a canary, we are told. And Emilienne, after her husband Connor Lavender moves her to Seattle, her siblings all having died, continues to see and converse with their ghosts in her new home. As well, she sees the ghost of the little girl who previously lived in the house, one Fatima Inês, appearing along with theirs, particularly at crucial times in the novel. In this sense, Ava’s connection with birds is not only a matter of heredity, but also of environment, because in Fatima Inês’s room, there are a host of doves who have mated with crows, leaving feathers everywhere. As well, after Jack Griffith, the young erring father of Ava and Henry deserts her mother Viviane for another woman, the handyman Gabe, who lives in the house, becomes a sort of foster father to the children even though Viviane remains for a long time emotionally remote due to her unrequited love for Jack; Gabe hangs a feather mobile over Ava’s crib before she is born, which is rather as if yet another line of “inspiration” has occurred to make her part human, part bird. Yet, her fondest wish is to be treated simply as a girl, and before the end of the novel, a young man, Rowe, brother to her friend Cardigan, seems to be the solution to this problem.
There is also the obsessed young Nathaniel Sorrows, however, a strange kind of religious fanatic who poses a threat to Ava’s desire to be ordinary, as he has an idolatrous fixation with her. Though I won’t give away the very end of the novel, I should say that he is key to the resolution of the plot, and is disposed of plot-wise as well, just as the other odd characters have sometimes been.
Among some of the minor characters there is Wilhelmina, a native American woman with mystical powers who helps Emilienne run the family bakery, and Penelope, who does so as well. And though it may not be usual to include a bakery as a character, as a magical sort of personality, the bakery is responsible for all the superlative tastes and good smells and wonderful pastries and breads that finally lure the townspeople away from their belief that Emilienne and Wilhelmina are both witches, and draw them in to enthusiastic support of the business.
Times of the year, seasons, solstices and equinoxes, are symbolically important in this story too; the summer solstice, for example, is Fatima’s anniversary of her birthdate, and the people of the town celebrate it as much for the one reason as for the other. Other odd happenings include things from the very first of the book, when Mama Roux, Beauregard’s wife, is said to become transparent and disappear after he has (actually) mysteriously disappeared; this is not simply a symbolic book, however, and it’s not just that she becomes “transparent” and so forth in terms of personality. By the way the event is recounted, it’s clear that it’s meant to be “real.” Then, there is the man in Seattle who, after his wife leaves him, begins to dream her dreams; once again, though there is a symbolic element to this statement, it is also meant to be real, as real as it ever is in a work of magical realism.
Walton does show her rhetorical hand in her fiction here and there of course, and in direct statements that occur alongside the plotline rhetoric. For example, about three-fourths of the way through the book, she speaks of the “malformed cousins of love,” “lust, narcissism, self-interest.” When the children Ava and Henry, now in their teens, finally venture outside of the protective surroundings of their house on solstice, Walton has her narrator comment: “..[C]hildren betray their parents by being their own people.” Near the end of the novel, when grandmother Emilienne is sitting by the bed of the wounded Ava, she is said to think of “all the scars love’s victims carry.” Still, the main tendency of the novel is to be whimsical, mysterious, magical, and thoroughly engaging, without that emotional drop that the reader often feels when the ending is not unrelievedly happy (and that’s a hint but not a spoiler). It is, however, a quite spell-binding book, from start to finish, and I would encourage everyone interested in this type of fiction (and even those for whom it would be a first encounter with magical realism) to read it. Who knows, maybe if you read it, your canary or parakeet will begin giving you significant looks before dropping a feather on your page and initiating an intellectual or poetic conversation! At the very least, you will have experienced a gifted new writer’s début novel, and may be a bit more mystical, philosophical, or wise about the departures or desertions of loved ones and other machinations of fate.