I’ve always loved wingfic—that is to say, stories about people with wings—ever since I was very young, and so when someone recently recommended me a magical realism book about a girl born with wings, I immediately snatched it up from the library. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that despite the actual wingfic part of the book, the rest of the book wasn’t something I was particularly into. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton, tells a story about lust, love, and loss, but fell somewhat short when it came to making the book more than an exercise in good prose. Spoilers after the jump.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender isn’t entirely about Ava Lavender, but about her whole family through the generations. Members of Ava’s family are unlucky—even foolish—in love, and the phrase “love makes us such fools” is basically the chorus of the story, as it’s said at some point about almost every family member. Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne Roux, immigrates from France to New York as a child with her family and siblings, and each of them falls into disastrous love stories. The youngest sibling, Pierette, turns herself into a bird permanently to try and catch the eye of an ornithologist; her next sister, Margaux, carves out her heart after an affair and a miscarriage, and her brother René is a gay man who has an affair with a married man and is killed for it. Emilienne herself is scared away from love, marries a man whom she has no feelings for, and moves across the country with him.
In Seattle, where Emilienne and her husband Connor Lavender settle, the two of them start a bakery and Emilienne has their only child, Viviane. Viviane grows up with Jack Griffith, her inseparable friend, and they quickly declare that they love each other. But Jack sleeps with her and then breaks up with her, leaving Viviane to raise their children, the twins Ava and Henry, alone. Ava is born with beautiful wings and many think of her as an angel, but Viviane is afraid that people will try to hurt her daughter and keeps her confined to the house out of fear. Of course, Ava grows up and sneaks out of the house, which leads her into an extremely dangerous situation.
The prose of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender fits its magical realism well—it’s atmospheric and evocative and makes me homesick for Seattle, a place that I’ve never been. Similarly, as all good magical realism does, the magical realism of the book emphasizes the magical in the mundane—Emilienne’s bakery is filled with pastries that can change a person’s mood and their prospects; grief and sorrow make many of the story’s women simply fade away into blue ash; and Ava’s wings are a source of contention that soon reveal the true nature of the people who see them. There are two people who are notable here — Rowe Cooper, the brother of Ava’s friend Cardigan, and Nathaniel Sorrows, a devout man who believes that Ava is an angel sent from God. Rowe falls in love with Ava not for her wings but because he’s in love with who she is. Nathaniel, on the other hand, reduces Ava to her wings and objectifies her for them.
Throughout the book, we get many stories of foolish love and many stories of beautiful love, not only romantic, but also platonic and familial. In the end, Ava turns away from her crush on Nathaniel to realize that she is in love with Rowe, which to some extent counters all of her family’s foolish love stories up to that point. The two of them are on the same emotional level, unlike Connor and Emilienne; Rowe never forgets to write to Ava and keeps his promises to her, unlike Jack with Viviane. The last scene of the book is left up to interpretation, but can be seen as very hopeful.
However, something about this story didn’t ring true to me despite how beautifully it was written. For a story about love, it was hard for me to believe many of the love stories. Jack tells Viviane later that he was always in love with her, but his father disapproved, and he broke up with her to be the son his father wanted, which doesn’t make a lot of sense as he’d been dating Viviane under the watchful glare of his father’s disapproval for years at that point. Emilienne’s siblings’ love stories are told to us, not shown, and that makes it harder to connect to rationales and feelings that could have helped us to understand why they made the decisions they did. Only Ava and Rowe’s story has some emotional heft to it—they have a connection based on honesty and good communication, unlike everyone else, and it’s easy to see why they might have fallen in love. However, we don’t see much of their romance beyond the confession that they love each other. For this to really be the romance that breaks the curse of the Lavender/Roux family, I feel like we really needed at least fifty more pages of it.
Furthermore, the story runs into some difficulties with its social issues. Rowe has a stutter which is only sometimes present, Ava’s twin Henry would be called autistic by any other name but in this book is only “strange” and somewhat mystical, and there are very few people of color or queer people in all the places the Lavender/Roux family has lived. (We do get one reference to how terrible residential schools were for Native American children, so that’s something at least.) Additionally, many of the male characters are driven by lust and motivated by either their desire for or because they’d been rejected by one of our main female characters—in fact, there is a fairly graphic depiction of sexual assault near the end of the book, so please be forewarned for that. It emphasizes how foolish our women are for falling in love with them, while rarely castigating the men for their actions and beliefs.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a good book if you’re into magical realism, but it doesn’t quite have the characters or the plot to turn admittedly beautiful prose into something that can really fly. I probably won’t read it again, but feel free to check it out if it sounds interesting to you!