Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Leslye Walton)

I don't like comparing authors to other authors because comparison is lazy and feels like cheating, but if you like any of the following, do not delay in acquiring a copy of this book: Gabriel García Márquez, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, Aimee Bender. This happens to also be a list of some of my favorite authors, people who dazzle me with their imaginative power and the beauty of their writing and the hopeful sadness they elicit. Add Leslye Walton to this list because The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is spectacular.

This is the story of three generations of Roux women, destined to fall and in love and have each encounter fail miserably. We start with the beautiful Emilienne, one of four siblings that moves from rural New York to a cramped Manhattan apartment at the turn of the century. She watches as each of her siblings is transformed or destroyed and feels herself eroding to the power of heartbreak as time and again her love is corrupted and perverted.

Eventually, she marries Connor Lavender, a polio-crippled baker, and they move all the way to an empty mansion in Seattle that once belonged to a mysterious Portuguese family. They give birth to Viviane, who grows up (and falls in love) with her neighbor Jack. A series of events leads to heartbreak for Viviane and the birth of her twins, Ava, who has wings, and Henry, who is silent. The two grow up sheltered, cut off from the outside world, until Nathaniel Sorrows moves to town. Then everything falls apart.

It's hard for me to explain the story because the first half of the novel unfolds as a chronicle of Ava's family history and I'm trying not to spoil any of those details. Apparently, some people have found this off-putting because Ava is the title character, but I promise that reading about Emilienne and Viviane is delightful. These sections feel like fragments of captured dreams that have blossomed into senses-enthralling flowers: they are beautiful and command every sensory capacity you have. They will, of course, snap your bones into pieces and shatter your existence, but they do it so beautifully.

And the section about Ava is just as gorgeous and painful. If I had to pick only two words to take away from this review, it's those two: "gorgeous" and "painful". You will want to hug Ava and try to protect her from heartbreak and the cruelty of the world, but you will marvel in just how beautiful that awful, nasty world can be. Walton is so talented and her writing is so evocative. I wanted to take a mud bath in her words and let them prunify my skin.

The story is full of bizarre manipulations of reality, and it's fascinating to watch the author put her characters--beautifully, tragically, upsettingly human--through a series of unbelievable, wondrous events. One thing that's important to watch out for in stories where the rules of our world are thrown out: will the characters still act like people? Or will they devolve into caricature? Thankfully, Walton rises to the challenge, as do her phenomenal characters, who are Márquez levels of messed up while still being people.

I'm struggling to come up with logical statements about the book because I loved it so much. You know when you really, really enjoy something and you try to explain it to other people but all you can manage is "it's so good!"? That's how I feel right now. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a dazzling gem of a novel, one that cracks apart reality, pumps it up with sadness saline solution, and then lights it on fire. If you have even a passing interest in generational destiny sagas, or magical realism, or stories about love, don't hesitate. Read it. Please.

My rating: 5/5
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender on Goodreads
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