Week 6 – The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

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“Ava Lavender comes from a long line of men and women unlucky in love and surrounded by the strange. Ava herself was born with wings, but this magic-realism novel is as much about the generations that came before her, each blessed or cursed with unique abilities. The gentle voice of Campbell suits and sets the mood perfectly, bringing her own magical qualities to an already enchanting read. Campbell is especially adept at the French names and phrases, as well as with the few other foreign words scattered throughout. Though beautiful, the incidental music at the beginning and end of each disc occasionally clashes with the emotional quality of a scene, drawing the reader out of the story. Despite this, Campbell and Walton together have created a charming and captivating listening experience for teens and adults alike” (Layman, 2015).

While I’d like to think of myself as a connoisseur of fantasy young adult literature, this was perhaps the most unique and beautifully written work of fantasy I have ever read. The story follows young Ava Lavender, a girl who was born with wings on her back. The novel chronicles her family’s tragic, troubled past as Ava struggles to find her place in the world, expertly mixing realism and fantasy. While it’s hard to define the concrete theme of this novel, I believe it is about the tragic nature of love and finding hope even in the darkest of circumstances.

Perhaps the most powerful quote in the entire novel comes a little over halfway through, when Ava decided to venture out of her house for the first time, accompanying her friends Rowe and Cardigan. After Ava admits her fear of the “normal” teenagers she is about to meet, Rowe responds with: “…[T]hat might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings” (Walton, 2014, p. 177). This quote, to me, goes much deeper than simply discussing a fictional girl with wings; this quote can be used to describe our society as  a whole, as we tend to fear that which is different from us. Whether it is someone of a different faith, skin color, or sexual orientation, we tend to fear the things we don’t know or do not agree with. Even though this book is, essentially, a fantasy, there are many elements within it that hit uncomfortably close to home.

As a long-standing fan of fantasy, I can definitely see the appeal of this novel. I was first drawn to it because it was about a girl with wings. Being a bird lover (as well as being obsessed with the Maximum Ride series by James Patterson), I knew I had to give this novel a try, and I was not disappointed. I expected the fantasy elements, but I did not expect to see them in such a unique way. If the few fantasy elements within this novel did not exist, it would read very much like a work of historical fiction. Many historical events are mentioned throughout the book, including the sinking of the Titanic and the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, the book is written in an extremely descriptive, almost poetic style, giving it a vivid sense of realism. In every scene, you feel as if you are experiencing what the characters experience, as every setting and facial expression are explained in meticulous detail. While this might not be the style for everyone, fans of realistic fiction looking to break into the fantasy genre will really appreciate the realism in this novel.

Another aspect of this book that I really enjoyed was the mystery. Throughout the book, I kept asking myself if what I’d just read actually happened, or if it was meant to be a metaphor for something deeper. For example, Ava’s grandmother continually sees the ghosts of her dead siblings and husband, and it is never explicitly explained whether they are actually there or only in her head. Ava’s ancestor, Pierette, may or may not have actually turned into a canary; it is a fleeting moment that is mentioned but never fully explained. While frustrating at times, I began to appreciate these little elements of fantasy, as they seemed to be a large part of the book’s overall charm.

Again, this might be a difficult book for new or reluctant readers, as the language is complicated and the plot is not always straightforward. If I were to recommend this book in a library setting, I would recommend it to fans of either fantasy or realism, or to any teen looking for a challenging read. I would also recommend it to anyone currently going through a difficult time, as this book shows that happiness and hope can be found even in the most desperate situations. It is a beautifully tragic book, full of sadness, wonder, hope, and just a little dash of pure magic.

References:

Layman, J. (2015). The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. The Booklist, 111(16), 64.

Walton, L. (2014). The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Berryville, VA: Candlewick Press.

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