Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Author: Leslye Walton
Date Added: August 2, 2016
Date Started: August 6, 2018
Date Finished: September 3, 2018
Reading Duration: 28 days
Genre: Fantasy/Magical Realism, Paranormal, Young Adult (YA)
Magical realism, lyrical prose, and the pain and passion of human love haunt this hypnotic generational saga.
Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird.
In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.
That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo.
First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.
Note: I’m going to split this into two sections: Review and Analysis. The Analysis section will have spoilers whereas the Review will be just that.
Foreseeing the future…means nothing if there is nothing to be done to prevent it.
Ava Lavender is a girl born with brown speckled bird wings in a world where magic might blend with the mundane but does nothing to mitigate grief. Ava’s life is seeped with sorrow, and she came by it honestly. The first part of the novel lays out the past to feature her French forebears with the apt surname of “Roux.”
All of them saddled with unlucky love and dying too young to reap the full sorrows. Only her grandmother Emilienne survived to birth her mother Viviane who herself suffered love unreturned.
Though Ava’s wings are an anomaly, they aren’t wholly unexpected. There is a definite ornithological angle to her history with even her name “Ava” suggesting the Latin nomenclature of “aves” for birds. Her great aunt Pierette turned herself into a canary to entice an ornithologist, and Fatima, the little girl who lived in her home before Grandmother Emilienne arrived, kept doves (there’s a creepy incest/pedophilia subtext with Fatima that’s almost too blatant to be just subtext, and I think it serves as a sort of foreshadowing…at least in the second part). Because this novel dwells in the realm of magical realism, it’s up in the air whether or not Pierette really turned herself into a bird, or if Emilienne was using as a euphemism to lessen the loss. Since Ava has literal wings, I think it leans more towards the magical side, and as Emilienne mentions Pierette did not survive the cross country train trip to Seattle, this supports it even more. Emilienne has lost all of her siblings, but in her new home and heavily pregnant, she is haunted by them. Though their presence veers towards magical in nature, grief is firmly in the realm of mundane. She learned despair at an early age, so desired and made a loveless marriage.
“…neither Emilienne nor Connor ever stopped to ponder the miracles love might bring into their lives. Connor because he didn’t know such things existed, and Emilienne because she did.”
She passes this grief onto her daughter Viviane and round and round the sorrow goes. For Viviane that grief’s foundation is Jack, and while it’s a bit frustrating that all of these women (Ava included) could relate their tales of woe back to some man, it’s also not unrealistic for the time. I would say Ava was born and grew in a relatively modern age (though I suppose it’s debatable whether the 1980’s/90’s can still be considered “modern), but for Viviane and certainly Emilienne, marriage and, therefore dealing with men’s bullshit, would be almost unavoidable, and holy god was Jack a total jackass. Like I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt *spoiler* because he was the victim of his abusive father who was the main reason he couldn’t “properly” be with Viviane, but for him to meet someone else while he was away at college and then tell the girl he left behind “You’d like her if you got to know her!” smacks of an inconsiderate naivete that, while not malicious in intent, is certainly malevolent in action. Considering he chases Viviane down afterwards and they have sex in the grass only shows to prove that if men have nothing else, they have the audacity. He just finished telling her about a girl he’s supposedly in love with whom I sure would love to discover her beau just fucked the one he left behind. *end spoiler* What an asshole.
*spoiler* Ava is born of this union. Later her brother Henry comes along.
Note: I’m honestly blanking on Henry’s paternity. I’m pretty sure his father is Jack, too, and him and Viviane kept up an extramarital relationship on his part, but I’m honestly only thinking this because I don’t think she was with anyone else. It’s not that important to the narrative, so please forgive me this memory lapse. *end spoiler*
Henry (Ava’s little brother in case you skipped the spoiler. This isn’t a spoiler, but I couldn’t figure out how to not include it in the spoiler tag without it sounding weird) is autistic. It’s not blatantly said because they wouldn’t have known what that was back then (similar to Harlan in Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy), but the way he’s described, it’s clear this is what the author was going for. He was initially thought to be deaf when Viviane tried to capture his attention by banging pots and pans, but later it’s revealed that he listens to his mother’s stories. He’s mostly nonverbal and what he does say is in a sort of coded speech, for example he calls Ava “pinna,” which might be short for “pinion,” a feather of flight.
We’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings.
Though Ava has wings she has to hide, she’s still similar to any other girl. It’s not the wings that make her different; it’s the different way she’s treated because she has wings. *spoiler* After spending hours crafting then donning a harness to keep them in check with her “best friend” Cardigan, the latter almost immediately announces the secret after a meetup with the rest of her friends, which honestly makes it seem like Cardigan only befriended Ava in order to show her off. The only semi-good thing that comes out of the outing is Ava meeting Rowe who serves as her initiation into the Roux Family’s love curse, which is appropriate given his name sounds similar to her unlucky forebears. *end spoiler*
There is decidedly a pattern between Ava and her mother Viviane. Viviane fell in love with Jack who was absolutely no good for her, while ignoring and eventually driving away Gabe, someone who could’ve been. Ava follows the same respective pattern with Nathaniel Sorrows and a sweet boy named Rowe.
This book left me in a weird liminal state. I loved the mellifluous prose and I’m a huge fan of magical realism, but it has some ableist issues as well as a violent paradigm that’s consistently overused to the point of being a harmful and ugly trope. I don’t think Walton is as blatantly guilty of doing so in the most malicious way, but there is some potentially damaging symbolism in the aftermath. The author has discussion questions at the end that attempt to rationalize the reasons why, and there definitely are things Walton does that are the antithesis of the normal stigma. The ending has a two distinct interpretations with smaller branching ones, and like most good stories Ava Lavender could be viewed in a variety of ways. It’s a narrative that’s meant to be discussed, but that doesn’t erase the potential problems it presents.
CW: Discussions of rape of a minor/pedophilia, mutilation and torture.
Before I read this book, I was warned about the climax of the story, but I would’ve figured it out even without such. It was heavily advertised. Since there’s quite a long time between my finishing a novel and review (sometimes over a year), I have time to collect my thoughts, and I’m usually good at noting them down for later. There’s a lot to unpack in this story with not only the themes around Ava’s rape by Nathaniel Sorrows, but also the ableism surrounding Henry, her autistic (or at the very least autistically coded) little brother.
Henry had been warning the family about the disastrous events for a long time, but either no one understands him or none of them listen. He constantly repeats the term “Pinna hurt” with Pinna being his term for Ava. This is something the entire family knows. During a rainstorm, which he lets them know is the catalyst for Ava’s assault, Henry wanders away and is found by Jack. This serves as an innocuous parallel to what happens with Ava and Nathaniel. After locating the boy, Jack calls Viviane who has a final confrontation with him when she goes to pick up her son. He admits he’s been in love with her, too and promises to take care of her and her children. But when he says they can be “kind of like a family,” Viviane finally realizes he’s never going to let go of his father’s disgust for what she is. This realization allows her to finally realize she’s wasted her life pining for this useless man.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel Sorrows lures Ava to his house where he proceeds to rape her and cut off her wings (and, oh, we will talk about that combination), after which he comes to the conclusion that she’s “just” a girl and not an angel. Let’s try to wrap our heads around this…he rapes and mutilates a child and then decides she doesn’t live up to his standards. In almost serial killer fashion, he collected, mutilated, and killed birds for “pretending to be God’s messengers,” though winged like angels, they’re unclean. That’s how this monster sees Ava and justifies his actions. She’s not really an angel; she’s not really a messenger of god. Like the birds, she’s just pretending and therefore needs to be punished.
After this horrible act, Nathaniel flees only to be killed by Ava’s dead relatives, Emilienne’s siblings who’ve been following her around since their deaths. The only thing left is a “burn” mark, possibly insinuating Nathaniel’s eternal fate, but, I suppose, a more important point is how the Roux clan is able to protect one of their own even after death. I wish Nathaniel could’ve faced some mundane justice, but I suppose it’s a better ending than The Lovely Bones (I’m still fucking angry about that).
Ava spends a month recovering with the town’s sympathies wholly with her, but even with such support she contemplates suicide. During her convalescence, her grandmother “dreams” of her siblings, and for the first time her brother René’s face doesn’t reflect its horrific death wound. When Emilienne awakens, she joins him and the others as another spirit in the family tree. When Ava enters her grandmother’s room, she parallels what Emilienne did with her in Nathaniel’s house: listening for breath before she herself breathes, but Emilienne has none to offer.
Ava has been receiving tons of letters from Rowe, which is a parallel with Viviane who received such from Jack before they ceased, but unlike that human garbage can, Rowe is faithful even though he and Ava never officially dated. However, the last chapter does something interesting with Jack Griffith. Ava sees herself through his eyes, revealing he had a clear look of the neighborhood from his attic, most especially Pinnacle Lane. In this final chapter’s vision, Ava “sees” her father watch her while the bandages come off and white wings unfold for her very first flight.
Let’s rewind a bit and talk about the prior mentioned ableism. Simply put, ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. Like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, it’s literally baked into our society to the point that those who don’t experience it or who have internalized it might not even believe it exists, and when it is pointed out by people with lived experiences or insights, they will often attempt to gaslight them into thinking they’re “crazy” (which fittingly is an ableist term) instead of just listening.
There were two instances I picked up on ableism in Sorrows. One at the beginning with Emilienne and her husband and later the more overarching example with Henry.
Emilienne looked at Connor Lavender’s withered leg and his mahogany cane, and decided that such a man would have trouble leaving anywhere, or anyone for that matter.
She would close her eyes as he made love to her so she wouldn’t have to look at his misshapen leg.
One could, of course, point to the time this occurs (early 1900’s) and/or say that Emilienne’s attitude merely reflects the one of the time, but really that just supports how prevalent and pernicious such beliefs were. I don’t know if I can castigate Walton for this as she could just be writing what that zeitgeist would’ve expressed, though there doesn’t seem to be any condemnation of it in the subtext. I think the treatment of Henry is worse only because he’s more of a main character.
Henry is painted as an unheeded savant by the author, a sort of male Cassandra. He has some prophetic knowledge that his sister is in trouble without any empirical evidence, yet his warnings are unheeded by his family who is well aware of how he communicates. He’s not only ignored because he’s a child, but also due to his disability. The idea of a savant is problematic as it supports the egregious, erroneous, and all too common media portrayals of such that give false relevance and cause actual harm in real life. Making people with disabilities into “super crips” has been rightly critiqued by others with better POVs and insights than me like this article by Crippled Scholar who excoriates M. Night Shymalan for the same.
One of my big questions after finishing Sorrows was “Why? Why have this happen to her? Why have this asshole rape her? What purpose did this serve?” I wasn’t alone in questioning this. There is a troubling trend in narratives to have a girl/woman harmed, usually sexually, and/or killed, often in a metaphorical rape way
in order to advance a male character’s narrative. Its foundation is The Fridged Woman Trope, but like so many motifs where women are harmed, it has expanded from there. Originally popularized from comic books (and catalogued on this site), it has since spread to every conceivable medium. Even when a female character has more agency (like in the example pictured above), she can still be murdered in order to make the hero sad (Aeris isn’t even the only woman in FFVII treated in this fashion, but I digress), which makes it more glaring in that an actualized character, as opposed to merely a caricatured, is treated so.
Ava’s rape doesn’t serve to galvanize a male character (see Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece for that paradigm), but that doesn’t absolve it of issue. Walton provides discussion questions in the back of the novel, one of them concerning whether or not the people of Pinnacle Lane would’ve accepted Ava if she hadn’t been attacked i.e. is empathy necessary for acceptance? And honestly…that is a horrible, fucking concept. This child had to be raped in order for her neighborhood to accept her? After she recovers, Ava is able to go to school, but it’s treated like she wasn’t able to do so before because of her wings. It’s like the quintessential bully/victim blaming idea taken to the extreme e.g. don’t be bullied as opposed to don’t be a bully. This doesn’t even touch on the fact her wings grow back “pure” white, a symbol of her regained or unlost purity, but the “pure white” paradigm is obviously troublesome. It’s excellent that the act of a coward didn’t sully her (because it shouldn’t) and white for purity is a motif older than dirt, but the age of the problem only means no one was given the agency to question it sooner.
It is, however, possible that none of the above happened at all, as Walton makes it unclear whether it’s white wings Jack sees or bandages before his daughter leaps from the balcony. If Ava committed suicide as opposed to taking literal flight (it could be argued that she did indeed fly at the end insofar as her soul ascended to heaven in the aftermath), it would be understandably tragic in the wake of her attack and finding her grandmother dead. She would continue the cycle of sorrows so plaguing the Roux clan, making this a symbolic win for Nathaniel with such a surname. By giving into sorrow, that monster would claim a victory even after being burnt to ash. As this is so horribly hopeless, I am going to believe Ava did indeed take flight with wings of white, but the framework exists for the inverse.
The combination of lost wings and rape (both literal and metaphoric) is not unique to this novel alone. There are numerous narratives that either tie the two together or contain both paradigms e.g. Maleficent, Final Fantasy VII, Ever After, Constantine, and Dogma. Maleficent is the only one that makes a direct, if metaphoric, connection between lost wings and rape in the titular character herself (making Walton’s novel align closer to that) whereas the others have both motifs within but not attached to the same person.
For quite a while, I couldn’t figure out why this combination existed, yet it’s so obvious I want to smack myself: wings symbolize purity/being angelic, and the loss of them signify the loss of the same. This is obviously a problematic paradigm that seeks to blame the victim. The one who is defiled should never be the one to bear the shame (even the term “defiled” indicates the victim is befouled. So much of the language we have around this topic vilifies the victim) as is seen in the fore mentioned Maleficent, though FFVII does it well with having the person who does the (symbolic) rape (Sephiroth) being the one with the missing wing (an angel impure, an angel corrupted) so score one for Squeenix! And Ever After has that magnificent symbolism of the evil step-mother ripping the fairy wing off of Danielle’s back, revealing in no uncertain terms that she was the one holding our heroine down. Then Constantine has Angela (ha Angela) raped by the man holding the Spear of Destiny (a spear being a phallic symbol just like a giant sword *cough cough*) and impregnated with Satan’s baby, and all of this is helped along by Gabriel who is punished by having his wings burned off.
With Ava, as problematic as it is to have her wings grow back white, Walton does show that her purity was not lost by what was done to her, and while there are many lingering “whys” in the narrative, the author and the people of Ava’s neighborhood don’t treat her as lesser for what she endured. It is a reclamation of who and what she is (similar to Maleficent). Her purity was not and could not be diminished by the actions of a monster, which is pretty progressive considering rape victims are typically faulted. None of that happens with her, and she is embraced by her community, though the question still stands why she had to endure such in order to achieve acceptance.
This leads me to the title The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Obvious double entendre is obvious with the reference to Ava (and the Roux family’s) literal sorrows as well as her rapist’s surname. This poses yet another “why.” Why would he be described in the same breath as “beautiful?” Is it because this is how Ava initially saw him? I looked up the name “Nathaniel” and wonder if Walton was going for some metatextuality. Nathaniel means “God has given” or “gift of God,” so perhaps “God has given Sorrows.” Maybe he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Roux.
Ava’s story is progressive in its portrayal of the aftermath of assault, while simultaneously relying on old and regressive tropes to fulfill this purpose. There are also numerous lingering “whys” with a major one being “Why did Ava have to endure sexual assault in order to be accepted?” but this appears to be something even the author herself was pondering per her discussion questions. Rape, as a literary motif, should never be used lightly, because it would be abysmal to speak of something so heinous irresponsibly. That is clearly not Walton’s intent, nor can I say the story suffers because of it. The author obviously set out to pose these questions and open up the discussion with the ambiguous ending, which serves to leave readers in a state of liminal ambivalence much like a feather on the wind.