Back in my Super Nerd days of Academic Decathlon tournaments, I read a tiny book called Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, a novel that is considered by many to be one of the front-runners for well-written magical realism. I enjoyed it, completely taken in by the way that magic seemed to permeate the mundane moments of life, like frigid winter air seeping through the invisible cracks in a house’s foundation, but I didn’t really pursue the genre. This was, in part, due to the fact that magical realism is often mislabeled as fantasy, even though it’s a tricky mixture of the real and the fantastic. In magical realism you get the best of both worlds, until you can’t even separate the two.
I saw Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender on a table at Barnes and Noble a few months ago. Initially, I was drawn to the exquisite cover art, and though I knew nothing about the actual story, I just couldn’t leave without buying it (I was on quite a large book-binge at the time, and I was impulse buying books left and right because that’s what huge life changes do to me). I have never been so happy to be a compulsive procurer of books.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is both very strange and very beautiful, both in the absolute best way possible. I don’t want to sugarcoat what this book is about, because I think that any person who won’t read it just because of the topic doesn’t deserve to read it. This is a love story. Not a romance, not a teen-angst-riddled drama, no, it’s in a niche all its own. This is a story about the power of love, and how it changes who we are as we experience it. Its about familial love, romantic love, friendship love, and even obsessive love. And it is so beautiful, I can’t even begin to describe it.
Walton’s prose took my breath away. She transported me first to France, then to a cramped tenement apartment in New York City, and finally to a sleepy town near Seattle, where I could practically feel the mist congealing on my skin as I read. For a debut novel, this is the kind of book that puts an author on the map.
“But neither Emilienne nor Connor ever once stopped to ponder the miracles love might bring into their lives. Connor because he didn’t know such things existed, and Emilienne because she did.”
There’s a good deal of magic in Ava Lavender’s heartbreaking and deeply moving story. After all, she’s a girl who is born with actual wings. Yes, you read that right. She has wings, like a bird (or an angel). One might even say it runs in the family, as her great-aunt accidentally turned herself into a bird well before Ava was born. The story, which centers around Ava (obviously) also absorbs the life story of her mother and grandmother, and it is while watching the years pass for them that we really become caught up in the Lavender family and their unique talents, beliefs, and actions. Magic comes to their family as naturally as breathing.
But the truly remarkable thing about this book is that, at its heart, it isn’t about the magic. It’s about the mundane. It’s about the little moments in life that shape us, the people we fall in love with, and the decisions we make. To borrow from the back of the book, “First-time author, Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and haunting mythology of what it means to be born with a heart that is tragically, exquisitely human.”
Every page of this novel surprised me – I was alternately delighted, heartbroken, and shocked. There is a chapter towards the end that I found to be one of the excruciating moments of any book I’ve ever read. But it’s a story full of hope, and it captures the essence of humanity perfectly. At the end of the day I don’t know for sure why we choose to love someone or stop loving him. I don’t know why we hold on so hard to the people who hurt us, or what causes us to actually let a person we loved go forever. This book doesn’t have the answers either, but it made me feel okay with not knowing why. Ava made me feel comfortable with my own story – Walton made me realize that sometimes it’s enough to simply know we love, even if we can’t explain it. I think there are strange and beautiful sorrows in all of our lives, which is just one of the many reasons I want everyone to read this book.
“Some sacrifices aren’t worth the cost. Even, or perhaps most especially, those made out of love.”
Rating: Best Book of 2014/5 stars (I make the rules, so I don’t have to use real numbers.)
Overall Reaction: “This book has been a salve to my emotional wounds; everyone has things that ail them, therefore, everyone must read this book. The world will never be okay unless every single person I know reads and loves this book.”