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the strange beautiful sorrows of ava lavender by Leslye Walton, 301 pages, RL: TEEN

When I was in high school I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and it remains one of the handful of books I have read twice in my life. There is something about the genre of magical realism that seems perfectly suited to the adolescent experience. It provides escape from what might be painful, difficult and confusing times and presents a version of the world that can be equally painful, difficult and confusing, but one that also holds the promise of beauty and meaning that can be like a light at the end of a tunnel or an amazing piece of chocolate as it melts in your mouth. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by  Leslye Walton is the perfect book for young (teen) readers and even adult readers to choose as a first foray into this rich genre.

Ava Lavender narrates the story of her life, explaining in the prologue that this book began as a "simple personal research project" in a weekend in 1974. Born in Seattle in 1944, Ava begins her story in Trouville-sur-mer, a small village in France with the birth of her maternal grandmother, Emilienne Adou Solange Roux, on March 1, 1904. Emilienne's siblings, René, Margaux and Pierette, are each born on the first of March in 1905, 1906 and 1907. Emilienne's father is a strapping, golden haired phrenologist who moves his family to the promised land of "Manhatine" (Manhattan - I listened to the audio version of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender as well as read it and it was a treat to hear Cassandra Campbell's pronunciation of French words and use of a French accent for certain characters) where the fortunes of the Roux family darken. Emilienne, who Ava tells us fell in love four times before the age of nineteen, emerges from 1923 the sole living Roux, each of her siblings and both her parents perishing in the face of unrequited love, careless love, violent love and a case of mistaken love, with one exception. Pierette, hopelessly in love with a bird-watcher who does not know she exists - even when she appears on his doorstep clad only in strategically placed feathers - turns into a yellow canary. In another act of magical realism, Maman, convinced that her husband was playing the field, gradually begins to fade away, her presence becoming transparent, until she is nothing more than a pile of grey dust found between her bedsheets one morning. In 1924, Emilienne marries Connor Lavender, a baker who wants to move his business across the country, determined not to love him and escape the seeming fate of the rest of the Roux family.

The intense passions and sad ending of Emilienne's family follow her across the country, the ghosts of her siblings settling into her new home on Pinnacle Lane, one that was built years ago by a Portuguese sailor for his young sister after their parent's death. The strange story of these siblings merges with that of the Roux siblings, leaving Viviane, Emilienne's only child who has the ability to sense emotions in smells, pregnant and alone at the age of eighteen, having lost the love of her life she has known since she was six. The intertwined stories of the siblings come to rest in Viviane's twins, Ava and Henry. The curious existence of Fatima Inês de Dores, her solitary life and the doves she raised, and her brother who possibly loves her as more than a brother, feels like Walton's nod to the Latin American tradition (creation? domination?) of magical realism and also introduces a darkly religious vein to the story, another common thread in Latin American magical realism. The birds in Fatima's past and Emilienne's converge in the house on Pinnacle Lane in the person of Ava, who is born with wings. Vivane, pining for the father of her twins, never leaves her mother's house again, nor do her children. For Henry, who is autistic, this is a comfort, but as she reaches adolescence, Ava, spurred on by her neighbor and friend Cardigan, begins to sneak out of the house. Warned by the ghosts in the house, but misunderstood by his family, Henry tries to protect his sister from the horrific event that he knows is coming, and, while he cannot stop it, he does get help to arrive in time to save Ava's life.

The character and events that lead up to this violent, perverse night are chilling and what make The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender a YA book. Up to this point, Walton creates a world  that I enjoyed spending time in, in spite of the tragedies suffered by the characters. Through the Lavender bakery, run by Emilienne and her close friend, Wilhelmina Dovewolf, Walton brings a luscious, richly descriptive vein to the story that is often symbolic, almost as symbolic as the presence of birds in the novel. It is easy to get lost in the descriptions of people, places and things that course through this novel. There are intricacies that I return to, details that feel like clues, over and over trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together and make sense of the events of the climax of the story - an event I saw coming the moment Nathaniel Sorrows arrived - perhaps because I have read magical realism? Nonetheless, I find myself intrigued and satisfied by The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender as Walton's story continues to swirl and churn in my imagination, long after the last page.

Source: Purchased audio book & review copy


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