Reviewed by Kathleen Holly Marsh
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an incredibly written book by American author Leslye Walton. The novel follows the story of Ava’s life starting with her great grandparents’ decision to move from a little French village to the United States in 1912. The style of plot is an unusual one as Walton shows us how the Lavender family developed and grew over the years in directly linear fashion, starting the backstory three generations back and working through each family member in a hefty amount of detail over the course of the book. Ava isn’t actually born until a good two thirds of the way into the story. This layout of the plot took me by surprise but it works very well with the delicate style of writing Walton uses.
To begin with I thought the novel might be translated from French due to the heavily romanticised and almost fantastical phrasing used throughout the book, I’ve never found this style of writing outside of old French novels before and it was refreshing to read a story I quickly got very involved in with such beautiful writing. One image hard to get out of my mind while reading was that Walton was painting a fluent masterpiece and with such colourful imagery and the light but sometimes painfully accurate descriptions I feel that overall this is the only way to describe the novel. When you reach the end of the book the only two things you want to do are read it again or put it in a museum.
The predominant theme of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is love. Though it isn’t necessarily a romantic book or a classic love story the main focus of this novel is undeniably the bittersweet risks and dangers of falling in love. Every member of Ava’s family falls prey to some form of love and it never turns out the way you’d expect. Love also seems to be the key to the flickers of fantasy that occur throughout the novel, although you would expect a book about a girl with wings to be set firmly in the fantasy genre, Walton writes about it very frankly and realistically to the point where you forget some of the bizarre occurrences are not normal. To use the word ‘magic’ almost seems taboo and insulting.
Family is another important theme for this book but not necessarily the loving nuclear family known to a lot of plots, nor any familial stereotypes that may spring to mind. However the common stereotype remains: family with members who do and don’t get along, who make poor decisions, but who stick together when they need each other most.
Due to the fact that this novel spans the majority of the 20th century and follows four generations of Ava’s family it’s understandable that we are introduced to a wide range of characters. It should be noted to Walton’s credit that every character is recognisably unique and has individual traits that makes it relatively easy to keep tabs on who is who, because I’d be fibbing if I said I could recognise every name that cropped up. Walton also flawlessly moves from one distinctive era to the next, through both World Wars and into the 50s and 60s. The only way to recognise the passing of time is the birth of new characters or hints at fashion or notable events. The real world is by no way the focus of this story, it is only the role that the Lavender family plays in the world that’s of any interest.
This book is for those in search of harsh truths and bittersweet revelations, delicate descriptions that leave a taste of magic on the tip of your tongue and a flowing story that gives you the whole picture and won’t necessarily make you fall in love with any of the characters for fear that you meet a sticky end. It is a book for those in need of escape to a world like our own but different enough to feel like a dream and sometimes dark enough to fuel nightmares. It is not a book for the fainthearted or those with fluttery butterfly feelings when it comes to the realms of love.
There aren’t many recent books out there that feel this refreshing to read.
Leslye Walton The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Walker Books: Great Britain, 2014). 978-1-4063-5773-8, 301pp., paperback.
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