While the mother of the narrator of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender struggles in the throes of labor, crows collect cherry pits to toss at her house and sparrows snatch the strands of hair from women’s heads to weave into their nests. Ava’s birth affects all the birds on her street—the “auspiciously named Pinnacle Lane”—in unusual ways. We shouldn’t then be surprised that after the birth, an anonymous medical report reveals that baby Ava was born with “a slight physical abnormality.” We learn very early that the “abnormality” is the presence of two speckled wings that Ava wraps around herself from the beginning for protection and comfort.
The wings are avian or the wings are angelic, depending on the perspective of the observer. The presence of Ava’s wings become one among several reasons her mother, Viviane, insists that Ava never leave their house. Neither does her twin brother, Henry, who was born without them.
Sometimes there are feathers and sometimes the unfulfilled promise of flight. In the background are ghosts. Often there are tears. When Viviane loses the boy she grew up with, the boy who became the man she loved and the father of her twins, she loses a job at a bakery because “a batch of her eclairs made the customers cry so hard, the salt from their tears ruined a week’s worth of bread.”
The novel is above all a family saga, peppered with fantastical elements common to what’s come to be known as “magical realism.” The fantastical elements are what carried me through this narrative of Ava and her predecessors. Even after death, her ancestors never leave; neither does one of the house’s former occupants. They simply hover in the background as spirits often do. About halfway through, I arrived at the place where I felt firmly rooted in this unusual house with this unusual family of both living and deceased members.
After finishing the book, I immediately started to miss living in Ava’s world and inhabiting the house on a hill at the end of Pinnacle Lane. Amidst so many welcome surprises is one horrific moment that is stunning. By the end the aftermath unfolds into something wonderful and liberating.
If I had one quibble, it would be that some of the minor characters—specifically Wilhelmina who rescues the family bakery—appear, play pivotal roles, then disappear for most of the rest of the book.
Otherwise The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is, as it’s named, a beautiful novel. It takes me to a world similar to all the ones revealed to me in my favorite novels. I may be tempted to return to it at least one time and I forward to reading more from the book’s author, Leslye Walton—hopefully more fiction that takes wings.