The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a strange, strange book.
I suppose that's given away in the title, really. It's strange, and it's sad, and it is, at times, beautiful. And although I didn't love it as much as the rest of the world seemed to, it is definitely worth a read.
Ava Lavender is a very literary novel -- probably the most "literary fiction"-esque YA novel I've ever read. I originally wanted to write that it has a detached omniscient narrator, but I just checked, and it's written in first person. The fact that I thought it was in third person omniscient should tell you how detached it is. Ava Lavender tells us her experiences, but she also tells other people's stories, describing events she didn't witness, telling us stories of things before she was born with details she couldn't possibly know. The story isn't grounded in Ava like you might expect a first person narrative to be -- and in fact, it doesn't really feel like her story, not completely. It's the story of three generations of her family, all of whom are "unlucky" in love -- for "unlucky," read tragic in an almost magical way -- and Ava is only one piece of it.
We start with Ava's grandmother, Emilienne, who moves with her family from France to New York and watches all of her siblings suffer and die for love in very dramatic, fairy tale ways. One sibling feels so invisible she turns into a bird. Another rips out her own heart in the agony of heartbreak. And so on it goes.
When Emilienne moves to Washington, we get a side glimpse of the legendary girl who used to live in Ava's house, and again, it's a fairy tale like Brothers Grimm, or perhaps a horror story, depending on your perspective.
And this sense of magic is continued with our three main characters. Emilienne sees omens in everything. Her daughter can smell things like emotion and danger. And her granddaughter Ava is born with wings. The story follows them through the years, as they struggle to figure out life and love.
But don't be tricked by the fairy tale feeling of it -- or perhaps do, but accept it for what it really is. This is a dark, dark story. The tagline on the front of the UK version is "Love makes us such fools," but that's far more whimsical and bittersweet sounding than the story's actual message. Although that seems more fitting at the beginning of the book, I should repeat that Emilienne's sister rips out her own heart before the end of chapter two. And while the book retains its sad-but-beautiful, whimsical tone, the deeper we get into the story, the darker "love" and its effects become.
Sadly, I think all the marketing and packaging for this book is quite misleading. The blurb tells us that "on the night of the summer solstice, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air and Ava's fate is revealed," and that has a far more positive and magical tone than the actual tale. This book is very dark and violent, and some readers may find it disturbing.
Also note the "fate is revealed" part of the description -- it's all very passive on Ava's part. This is the story of three generations of women who struggle against the travails of love and lust and rejection, not the story of a girl with wings who finds herself, and Ava's decisions and agency count for very little in the end. Her mother and grandmother are far more important figures in the story.
This passivity and detachment is, I think, one of the reasons I didn't love this book as much as everyone else in the world seemed to. The other reason is simply that I don't enjoy "literary"-style writing as much as I probably should. I can appreciate the beauty of it, but it doesn't pull me into the story as I would like.
That said, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is definitely a book worth investigating, especially if you like your novels, as the title says, "strange, sad and beautiful." Just be prepared for some violence too.