Review: ‘The strange and beautiful sorrows of Ava Lavender’ by Leslye Walton

I have a lot of thoughts on this book, so, this is your warning. This might get long. This will be quite spoiler-heavy beyond a certain point, because I just don’t think there’s any way to talk about my trouble with the book without some spoilers.

The strange and beautiful sorrows of Ava Lavender

The concept of the book: Ava Lavender is a girl born, inexplicably, with the wings of a bird. 

A lot of this review is going to be criticisms of this novel, so before I get there, I do want to make it clear that I did enjoy this book while I was reading it – until Chapter Twenty Three. A lot of the stuff written here is what I’ve thought on reflection. The language is charming and the magical realism is really entrancing. I do not mean to say that this is a bad book.

Generally, the language of the book is entrancing. I admit, there were a few sentences and phrases that for me just missed the mark – they were clearly intended to be very serious, but were unfortunately comical. I couldn’t take seriously this sentence from Nathanial Sorrow’s diary, when he touches Ava’s wing:

I ran my hand across her wings, felt the softness of the feathers course through the tips of my fingers to settle magnificently in my groin.

This just made me read it again in disbelief that it was actually printed. In the context of the whole book, I understand what the author was trying to do, but I don’t think it worked. It just made me snicker.

As far as I’m concerned, the way this book is packaged and promoted and sold doesn’t give a proper indication of the book’s contents.

To begin with, the title. The strange and beautiful sorrows of Ava Lavender. Which is fine, but for the first hundred or so pages, Ava is not the subject of the story. She is its narrator, which occasionally stretches belief while she tells us about her grandmother’s inner thoughts and narrates her own conception (?), but the prologue tells us that she considers her family’s history to be her story as well. The novel follows three generations of Roux women: Emilienne Roux, her daughter Vivian Lavender, and her daughter’s daughter, Ava.

I did really enjoy Emilienne and Vivian’s stories. To begin with I found the pace quite difficult to settle into, because the narrator jumps between summarising years passing and then goes into intricate detail about individual events.

The other problem I have with the way the book is presented is the phrasing of the blurb.

To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel.

Pain in love is the Roux family birthright. For Ava Lavender, a girl born with the wings of a bird, it is the key to her fate.

Ava traces the lives and loves of the Roux women as she tries to understand what has made her who she is and what she will become. On the night of the summer solsitce, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air and Ava’s fate is revealed.

Re-reading this blurb having read the book made me grind my teeth quite a lot, and it brings me to the thing about this book that made me really angry once I had finished it. The ending. Oh dear. (There will be spoilers from here onwards; also, the latter half of this review and of the book have a big trigger warning for rape and violence)

This blurb is all about Ava’s fate – it makes finding out Ava’s fate in the book’s conclusion on the night of the summer solstice the obvious endpoint of the reading experience. It sets this up as the satisfying conclusion.

Publishers everywhere, copywriters and authors and just generally everyone: can we not ever, ever again in our entire lives describe violent rape and traumatising mutilation with an axe as anybody’s fate. Ever. Seriously. That is disgusting and I hate you a little bit for it.

Any charm I had with the story was completely killed by the author’s chosen climax. The ending is horrific. I’m not saying fiction can’t depict bad things – but this seemed completely unnecessary – to the plot, to character development, to anything. If the purpose of the ending (as the blurb suggests) was intended to explain Ava’s ‘fate’, or the answer why she has wings, this does not follow. This is not anybody’s fate. In the final passage of the book, Ava magically gets her wings back, with absolutely no explanation at all for why it happens, a strange Deus ex Mechina rescue of a plot device.

The follow up to the night of the summer solstice I found completely unsatisfactory. The text spends all of its time dealing with the consequences of Ava’s wings being hacked off. Apparently she can survive without them – although in the prologue we were told that her ‘entire muscular, skeletal and circulatory systems were irrevocably dependent on [her] wings’. I don’t understand putting this idea in right at the beginning, only to contradict it at the end and then not explain, but I’ll ignore it.

I did not feel like the text had any actual resolution to the fact that Sorrows not only mutilated her, her also raped her – first because he wanted an angel, and then as punishment for only being a girl. The text never actually deals with the specific trauma of this, and just has Ava return to being in love with the boy she already loved. No mention of actual consequences that couldn’t equally be there only with the violence of him removing her wings – which makes it seem, to me at least, that the fact he raped her was used only for shock value. As the ultimate awfulness to subject a young woman to. Nathaniel Sorrows could have realised that she was not an angel, but just a girl, in many other ways than the fact her vagina was not made of feathers. Please.

From the beginning of Chapter Twenty Three, reading this made me feel physically sick – which might sound to some like it was doing its job, but I was sick because I had a horrible idea of what the author was going to subject her character to for what I consider to be no good reason and I was only proven horribly right – but it was worse than I had expected.

This book is presented as being about love – Love makes us such fools says the strapline on the cover, repeat the Roux women as they get screwed over again and again. According to the blurb, this pain in love is the ‘key’ to Ava’s fate – again, for those in the back, rape is not a fate, and can we just recognise that being raped is not equal to pain in love. Rape ≠ Sex

I’m going to move on from that rant to how I felt about Ava’s twin brother, Henry. Henry is quite obviously autistic. Which is great – more neurodiverse characters in books! Personally,  thought it would have been awesome if Leslye Walton could have actually described Henry as autistic, rather than just as strange – Ava is meant to be writing this in hindsight in 2014, as the prologue tells us, so the application of an actual word to it wouldn’t be out of place. I’m not sure I liked the way he was used in the plot – it seemed to me that the purpose of Henry being autistic was that Walton could make his rare verbal language, which nobody understood (or particularly tried to understand), into a premonition of Ava’s assault, so that we can all feel guilty about not realising it was coming after it happens.

While I enjoyed reading this book at the time, for the most part, I don’t particularly recommend this. I certainly won’t be re-reading it. I found a lot of the material quite upsetting, and I didn’t feel that it was necessitated by the narrative – the bad things happening didn’t draw me further into the plot or make me sympathise with the characters, it actually pushed me out of the narrative and made me question what was going on.

I’d be interested to hear any other opinions on this book if you’ve read it – let me know in comments.

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4 thoughts on “Review: ‘The strange and beautiful sorrows of Ava Lavender’ by Leslye Walton

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