The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Written by Leslye Walton
Review by Jarad Johnson
Sometimes, a book comes across my reading pile that has a striking title and nice cover, but doesn’t give any indication of the contents hidden within. This particular book cover featured a feather. (Please note the slight pathology of a person who buys books based on the cover without even knowing, based on the cover, what might be inside. I may have a problem. I buy a lot of books, okay?) I pondered the jacket, wondering if I had bought a book about birds. In a way I had, but I couldn’t glean that from the cover. Nothing to do but open the cover and stop puzzling over it in the middle of the Starbucks line. People might start to think I was weird. We can’t have that, can we?
The story begins with immigrants, as many American stories do. A family from France in the early twentieth century goes across the sea to build a better life in the New World. They have all kinds of preconceptions about America: that the streets are paved with bronze, and that you can become extravagantly wealthy by working hard. Needless to say, when they got to Ellis Island and established themselves in a small apartment in New York, they discovered that this was not the case.
In the end, not much of the family is left. The father is beaten to death, the brother is killed by the man he is having an affair with, and their heartbroken mother fades to dust one morning. That leaves only one of the sisters, Emilienne, and the other sister, who is coincidentally, a bird. Emilienne gets married and moves to a large house in a small town, where she is constantly followed by accusations of witchcraft. She bakes, you see, and her pastries do specific things, like lighten moods or reveal secrets. She is never classified as a witch in this novel, but it is a magical realism, and as such each member of the family that follows after her has gift of their own. Emilienne eventually has a daughter who seems ordinary. But is she?
The book has many tantalizing details, including a baby with wings, but I don’t want to spoil all the surprises right here at the beginning. Therefore, I’m going to take a moment to linger on my favorite part of the book because I must talk about something that interests me slightly more than an avian child- the garden. (Surprise! Surprise!) Emilienne is a gardener- which is probably why I like her so much. The whole town celebrates the summer solstice, and during that time everyone has dahlias (good choice!) in their garden beds, blooming their hearts out. Emilienne has those as well; in fact, she crossbreeds her own cultivars!
While I envy her skill with dahlias, there are other plants in the garden as well. The book mentions mint, rosemary, and several other healing and influential herbs that go into her pastries (In that way, it reminds me of the book Garden Spells, by Sarah Allen. You can read my review of it here). And lavender, of course, for as the book says you, “can never have enough lavender.” I agree, although I have yet to master the elusive art of growing lavender in Tennessee’s heavy clay soil. It’s pots for my lavender until the gods decide to gift me the knowledge that I require. I think soil amendments are in order.* There are also daylilies and catmint, if I remember correctly. Quite the garden, in other words! One can never go wrong with daylilies. Did you know that they're edible? Beauty now, sustenance during an apocalypse. The garden is important to the plot as a setting as well because there is a point in the book where a character, quite dramatically might I add, collapses amongst the lilies and the lavender. It sounded very much like something one of the members of the Sacred Chickens Flock (Essie) would do. In fact, she probably has done it at some point. (Editor’s note – Julie and Morty can attest to a good bit of Essie drama in the garden.)
Anyway, back to the baby with wings who eventually turns into a girl who grows up isolated from her community. Understandable, really. If the town thought Emilienne was a witch just because she a little different, what will they do to a girl with wings? The child’s differences and isolation lead the book into some very dark territory, and readers with trigger points around assault should take this into account.
This is a book in about tragedy and the endurance of one family. There are times when you can feel the sorrow, that Emilienne carries with her, as a constant burden. She is literally haunted by the ghosts of her siblings. Because of the element of magical realism, the barrier between fantasy and reality is very thin in this book, but everyone who loses a loved one is in some ways haunted by their memories. You don’t just forget about someone who has died, you carry their memory with you all the time. Perhaps ghosts are memories re-embodied in the minds of their loved ones. This is a sad book- the people who exist in its pages go through a lot.
It is also a discourse on difference- how do we treat those who are different from us? Those who speak differently, dress differently, or think differently than we do? How do we respond to physical manifestations of difference, and how do some people fetishize that? All of these relevant and important questions are tackled in this book; of course, some people won’t read it that way, but I do, and I think it’s an important conversation. How, in the era of building walls, do we as a society build bridges?
*Jarad is right. It’s tough to grow lavender in the Southeast part of the United States. Try sand and fine gravel as amendments. Like most other Mediterranean herbs, lavender would just as soon get moisture through its leaves. It definitely does not want wet feet! Julie has some that’s doing well in a dry mounded spot against a brick wall. If you want to grow anything along with the lavender, make sure the other plants are suited to the same conditions. If you have any lovely photos of lavender or anything else, please share them with the plantaholics here at Sacred Chickens.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!