The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender By Leslye Walton

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender  By Leslye Walton 
2014, Candlewick Press    301 pages

The Roux family has a tendency towards foolish love. For two generations, various family members have longed for unrequited love, fallen in love with the wrong people, changed themselves for love, and even died for love.

When they emigrate from France to America in 1912, the family hopes to find a better life, but America is not what they expected. Jobs are hard to come by, especially for a French phrenologist. Illness is abundant in the tenements, and Maman worries that disease will claim one or more of her children.

The Roux family’s misfortunes begin when Beauregard fails to return home one evening. Convinced that he has left her for another woman, Maman slowly fades away. Pirette, the youngest daughter, is the next victim of foolish love. She falls head over heels for an ornithologist, and, in a desperate plea for his attention, turns herself into a canary.

Emmilienne Roux, the eldest daughter, falls in love three times before her nineteenth birthday. Each affair is short-lived and ill fated. The last one, Satin Lush, betrays her so spectacularly that Emmilienne vows never to love again.

When she meets Connor Lavender, Emmilienne decides that a loveless marriage might be her best chance to get out of New York. The newlyweds move to Seattle and have one daughter, Viviane, who proves to be just as unlucky in love as her predecessors.

Viviane’s children, Ava and Henry Lavender, are born precisely nine months after Viviane’s childhood sweetheart, Jack, leaves her to marry someone else. Heartbroken and awed by her strange children – Henry is nearly mute and Ava is born with a perfectly formed set of wings – Viviane retreats to the house on Pinnacle Lane.

Isolating the children from the world isn’t enough to protect them from the family legacy. Ava is sixteen when Nathaniel Sorrows moves to Pinnacle Lane to care for his ailing aunt. His fascination with Ava and his religious fanaticism prove to be a dangerous combination, and Emmilienne and Viviane must move past their pain to protect Ava.

First time novelist Leslye Walton has crafted a beautiful, haunting family history that spans generations and continents. The story’s narrator, Ava, is achingly believable. Grounded by her flightless wings, she wishes simply to be a perfectly ordinary girl.

Walton’s style reminds me of a couple of my all-time favorites, Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased the Moon and Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven. The family mythology woven intricately into the fabric of the tale makes ghosts lurking in the corners, a supernatural sense of smell, and a girl born with wings all seem to be perfectly reasonable and ordinary occurrences.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is not a typical love story. Walton’s tale, by turns tragic and comic, expects readers to explore the big questions love raises – why do we love the people we love, and why do we hold on to love that hurts?

Heather Holley-Hall is Alamance County Public Libraries’ Head of Branch Services. She may be reached at 336-570-6730 or hhhall@alamancelibraries.org.