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The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Here’s some magic realism by way of fairy tales with writing that’s often achingly beautiful. Some books engage your intellect and others grab your heart; some books, however, immerse you in a sensory experience. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is this third kind of book. In a densely packed narrative that spans generations, Leslye Walton writes about love, obsession, regret, innocence, identity, freedom, and a lot more, aided by descriptive writing that emphasizes the five senses.
Touch, taste, sound, and smell are utilized quite frequently. Ava’s mother, Viviane, has keen olfactory powers with the ability to smell love, sadness, and happiness. Both Ava and Viviane experience touch in vivid descriptions, and taste and sound are often used to help place the reader in a character’s perspective. Some of Walton’s sensory descriptions are so lyrical, they’ve stayed with me more than any other aspects of the novel; a person able to smell fear is so disturbing and beautiful, it’s not easily forgotten. It’s these powerful sensory descriptions that give the book a feeling
that’s compelling and slightly mysterious. There’s a sequence where Viviane becomes increasingly dirty because she’s in a deep depression, and as a result, isn’t bathing. And while I couldn’t tell you the exact phrasing of the sentences (at least, not without consulting the text), I can recall the bleak feeling and the dark place that character went to because I can remember the way Walton describes her filthy dress and her sticky hands.
The dialogue and character development aren’t as strong. There are long stretches of narrative with little to no dialogue at all. Stylistically, this works nicely with the dream-like quality of the story; however, when they do talk, characters don’t speak like actual people. Their words are stiff and no one really has any individuality to their voice. Walton occasionally over-writes when she has her characters describe or state a situation that’s evident, as when one character wonders, “why would [Ava] have wings if she wasn’t meant to fly?”
Voice in general is an interesting aspect of Ava Lavender because it’s technically written in first person—a prologue presents the novel as an adult Ava’s attempt to make sense of her personal and family history—but the novel’s functionally third-person omniscient because Ava’s not really a character until after the first third of the book. Even after that point, her character is quite passive, leaving a lot of room to be in the head space of other characters.
At first, it’s a little jarring to discover that Ava Lavender is not really the main character in this book; in fact, Ava, Viviane, and Emilienne (Ava’s grandmother) each carry the story and demonstrate the dual nature of love. All three are victims of love, both directly and indirectly, but Ava is able to transcend that duality, literally flying above it. Although not always cleanly executed, and sometimes conveying problematic ideas, Walton is clearly attempting to explore love, among other themes, leaving readers with a lot to chew on.
While it has some significant issues, none are large enough to make this a novel we can ignore. It’s certainly a strong contender for the Morris, but we’re not called “Someday My Printz Will Come” for nothing. There’s enough going on with Walton’s use of language, the strong themes woven throughout (heck, the story practically runs on its themes), and the careful plotting to inspire rich discussion and debate.
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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