A couple of years ago, my mom learned about an interesting Icelandic tradition: the gifting of books at Christmas time–particularly on Christmas Eve. Apparently it’s a cultural phenomenon so widespread that it has a name–the Christmas Book Flood! As a family of book-lovers, this idea resonated with us, and it’s a tradition that we have begun incorporating into our own holiday celebrations. We have chosen Christmas Eve Eve (i.e. the 23rd) as the night to gather as a family, exchange books, and indulge in a couple hours of the ultimate coziness: a crackling fire in the wood stove, mugs of mulled wine or cider, a sweet treat to munch on, and time explicitly set aside to cuddle up together and READ. It might be a new tradition for us, but it already one of the ones I look forward to the most.
With this tradition fast-approaching (I’m so excited about the books I picked out for my parents and grandmother!), now seemed like the perfect time to write about the latest birdy novel I have read and enjoyed!
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender—how can you not want to read a book with that title? Now that I’ve read it, I think that the title not only draws readers in, but also describes the book quite well: strange? Yes. Beautiful? Absolutely. Sorrows? Unfortunately, many. Ava Lavender? The protagonist, who is named for a feature she shares with birds— feathered wings—is as sweetly enigmatic, yet heart-breakingly naïve, as her name suggests.
First, I have to take a moment to gush over what a beautiful addition to my birdy-book collection this novel is! The colors on the cover perfectly capture that elusive post-dusk twilight moment when the sky is a magical shade of deep cerulean blue at the horizon, darkening to an inky blue/black overhead. That ombré effect graces the front and back covers of the book. The title, printed in a white handwriting-esque font (and I love that it’s a mix of print and cursive–that’s always what I end up with if I try to write quickly), is laid out within an exquisitely drawn feather, the outline of which is metallic copper—so pretty! My photo does not do it justice! The feather motif continues throughout the book, with a small feather floating somewhere on the heading page of each chapter.
The story is told by Ava herself, with a prologue written when she is 70. The rest of the book is told linearly, with a few sidesteps into the background of new characters, when they are introduced, beginning with Ava’s great grandparents. In the prologue, Ava explains that the book is a combination of recollections from her childhood and facts and stories about her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents that she learned through researching her family. I don’t know if this prologue was fully necessary, as the book would probably have been just as effective with an omniscient 3rd person narrative. But, having Ava narrate gives a personal feel—and also means that the reader isn’t left questioning whether or not Ava survives the sorrowful events of story since, clearly, she does.
As Ava, herself, isn’t born until nearly 1/3 through the book, the story really is as much about her family as it is about her. And, while not a love story, per se, it is a story about love. Familial love. Romantic love. Friendship love. Love lost. Love gained. These themes of family and love set the book familiarly in the realm of magical realism classics such as 100 Years of Solitude or Like Water for Chocolate. Yet, the context is original: the book begins briefly in France, has an interlude in Manhattan, and then is set in Seattle, primarily in the 1960s.
As with all great magical realism, the magic comes as much from the language in which the book is written as from the events of the story. Leslye Walton’s craft does not disappoint (despite the fact that this is her debut novel!). As a name aficionado, I particularly enjoyed the poetically (yet perfectly) off-kilter names Walton bestowed upon her characters:
Beauregard Roux. Jack Griffith. Whilmelmina Dovewolf. Marigold Pie. Nathaniel Sorrows. Constance Quackenbush. Delilah Zimmer. Laura Lovelorn. Ignatius Lux. Some of the names are portents to a character’s fate. Others are just plain fun. The primary cast consists of:
Emilienne Roux: Ava’s grandmother, who is born in France and raised in Manhattan, where her heart is broken 3 times by age 19. She moves to Seattle, soon becomes a widow and single mother, open’s a fantastically successful bakery (despite being considered the neighborhood witch), and is haunted by the ghosts of her dead siblings.
Viviane Lavender: Emilienne’s daughter, and Ava’s mother, with a nose that can differentiate seasons by the characteristic smell of the rain, and can identify people, recipes, and emotions by their sent alone. She falls in love at age six, and lets that love consume her—even though it turns her into an over-protective mother who is oblivious to her own life.
Henry Lavender: Ava’s mostly-mute twin who communicates only what he feels is important, and only in cryptic ways. He calls Ava “Pinna,” because it is Latin for feather.
Gabe (with no last name): the handy-man, not-quite-father, always-reliable member of the Roux/Lavender household, who studies birds and bats in an attempt to build wings so he can learn to fly (and teach Ava to fly, too).
Cardigan Cooper: Ava’s best friend, who sees her as just an ordinary girl, and wants her to be able to lead an ordinary teenage girl life.
The birdy-ness of the book is, perhaps, less than I was expecting, but it is there nonetheless, and comprises the most overt elements of magic in the story. Early in the book, Ava’s great aunt Pierette falls in love with a bird-watcher and, in a radical—and unsuccessful—attempt to catch his attention, turns herself into a canary. Because this is magical realism, the transformation is complete: she’s small enough to sit on her sister’s shoulder, sings in the morning, and drops tiny yellow feathers throughout the house. And, because this is magical realism, the fact that a teenage girl turns into a bird is relatively unremarkable and completely accepted by those around her. The same is more or less true for Ava’s wings. The night she is born, all of the nocturnal birds gather in the neighborhood; upon her birth, reporters come in a frenzy, but she’s not really considered more than an oddity. Gabe suggests naming her Ava, as a nod to her fully-feathered wings. Because of her wings, Viviane doesn’t let Ava leave home. In addition to being likened to birds, Ava is perceived as an angel by one lonely, obsessive, and down-right disturbed individual.
The events of the story slowly build up to a pivotal crescendo, the final moments of which are a bit of a slow-motion train wreck. As the reader, you know exactly what is going to happen, and there is absolutely nothing you can do but stand by and watch. After that, the ending comes quickly—a little too quickly for my preference. It is also slightly ambiguous. Or, should I say, I am quite confident and comfortable with my interpretation, but I see how it could be read differently.
Overall, while I liked the story and enjoyed the ensemble of interesting (mostly tragic—some endearingly so) characters, my favorite part really was the writing.
At times, Walton’s language is straightforward:
“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.” (38)
“My mother didn’t want to fall in love with her strange children. She was sure that she hadn’t enough room in her heart for anyone but Jack. She was wrong.” (122)
At others, Walton uses evocative metaphors, which contribute to the more-than-ordinary atmosphere the entire story is imbued with. Through her use of language, the magical elements feel real, the Seattle setting (and the rain in particular) seem more like a character than a backdrop, and the entire book is heavy with emotion:
“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 to, say, 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 the length of Pinnacle Lane. If she were to drink it, she’d drown.” (102)
“Normally led through life by the heart attached to his sleeve, finding logic in love proved to be a bit like getting vaccinated for some dread disease: a good idea in the end, but the initial pain certainly wasn’t any fun.” (212)
“Those born under Pacific Northwest skies are like daffodils: they can achieve beauty only after a long, cold sulk in the rain…Emilienne was not a Pacific Northwest baby nor a daffodil. Emilienne was more like a petunia. She needed water but could do without the puddles and wet feet.” (143)
“The secret to a good chocolate cake had nothing to do with the actual cake. No the secret was in the icing, and caramel frosting was Emilienne’s specialty…she could make the frosting so enticing, so divinely rich and sweet, that it caused people to laugh out loud with just one lick of a finger.” (147)
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender has definitely stuck with me long after I finished reading it (a few months ago, I must admit…I took notes, but have enjoyed revisiting the novel). As I read the last sentence, I was satisfied, but wanted more. Ideally, more in the form of sitting down with 70 year-old Ava, sipping tea, eating French pastries, and hearing stories about the rest of her life. What could be a better indication that a book’s worth reading than that wistful feeling of wishing the characters were real?