Hello everyone, and welcome back!
Reading 30 books in 30 days hasn’t really been progressing as I wanted it to; I travelled to visit family and have had a heaping pile of work this month, so it hasn’t been easy to fit in a book every day! I’m still pretty happy, though, for how close I am to being on track to achieve my reading goal for the year and because I’ve tackled so much of my backlist.
Like this book, for example. I’ve been meaning to get around to it for a long time because a lot of reviewers really hyped it up for me, and, deciding I like magical realism in YA (thanks to When the Moon Was Ours. maybe), I finally got down to it.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
This cover is pretty nice. The title is too long. Not just because it’s a long title, though it is, but because I don’t really think it’s strictly necessary or super meaningful for this particular story.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is framed as a memoir by Ava Lavender, but that framing is mostly pretty weird because it includes things Ava wouldn’t have any reason to know and the book isn’t really about her until halfway through (when it still doesn’t cease to be about other characters).
Anyway, this book traces the lives of three women, primarily: Ava’s grandmother, Emilienne; her mother, Viviane; and Ava herself. It’s a magical realism tale, so there’s some amount of magic to all of them; Emilienne is able to read small signs, Viviane has a super-acute sense of smell, and Ava is born with wings. All of them have a complicated relationship with love, which finds its ways to hurt them. And all of those magical and emotional elements are interesting and dealt with very well, and by the end I was crying and feeling this book, but.
I’m torn about this book. I liked the style and the overall story, but it took me a while to get into it. It sometimes felt like it drifted through time without giving us a lot of time for build-up and character development. (Yes, it is a short book, okay. But it is also about three generations of women within about 300 pages, so I feel like this is a founded complaint.)
As a result, it was hard to get invested in certain characters and relationships, a fact that stole weight from the book later down the line. (I’m a broken record, but you have to give your readers reasons to feel the emotional beats of your novels by giving them reasons to invest in the joy or tragedy of what happens. Aka, give your readers reasons to know and care about characters.) Also, the fact that this book was framed as a memoir kind of interrupted my experience, because at no point do Viviane or Emilienne tell Ava certain stories, but according to the framing of the book, she is writing about them.
It also felt a little off to me that this book was framed as a YA novel. Towards the end, it is about Ava as a teenager, and it does follow the prior two generations during those coming-of-age years for some time, but the book often reads as older. I guess I can’t say it’s the subject matter (be warned: there is sexual assault/an assault and other mature moments, but YA often covers that), but the style and the way the focus often hones in on the adults of the novel made it feel more like…older YA, or just a regular novel. (This book reminded me in some ways of a CanLit novel I read in my youth, Away by Jane Urquhart, although I wasn’t too into that book compared to this one.)
In any case, this book was very charming in its own ways. The way each woman struggled with love was heartwrenching, and the imagery in the book was usually delightful. Its magic was very grounded, never explained, but never so splashy that it felt like it needed thorough explanation. This book also made me hungry, being so full of bakery imagery as it was.
Anyway: if you like lovely imagery, heartbreak, the lives of women, and magical realism in your more-mature YA, then you’ll probably enjoy this one, with the warning and caveat that it includes sexual assault. (It’s not super graphic and it’s not treated in a super-tropey way, but there are definitely disturbing moments before, during, and after.) It’s short in ways that do hamper it at points, but it has a certain something.
Do you have any magical realism YA favourites? Do you have any YA favourites that read like they could be regular old…novels? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!