I don’t typically like multi-generational stories. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a single one I actually enjoyed. But only a few chapters into Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I was already confident I’d like this one. Part of it was the delicate prose, the fairy-tale elements. It’s not a fairy-tale retelling, a popular genre at the moment and one I sometimes (though not always) enjoy, but it has the feel of a fairy-tale in much the same way that Franny Billingsley’s writing feels folkloric without actually replicating particular stories. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows is told with a delicate hand that helps mask the underlying violence of its magical realism. One spurned lover turns herself into a canary; an unwed mother carves out her own heart after her child is born; an autistic child receives supernatural warnings from ancestral ghosts. It’s a dark and haunting novel that nonetheless has a deftness and lightness of hand.
Secondly, I think the reason this multi-generational story was working for me is because the novel is not told strictly chronologically. So many multi-generational books are told in order, giving us the tale of one person or family before moving on to their children, and then their children. Usually, the point at which the author thinks any one person’s story is done is just when I’m fully invested in them, so moving on to their offspring feels tremendously disappointing. Why should I care about this new person? Here, in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows, it is Ava herself narrating the stories of her parents and grandparents as a prelude to sharing her own. This framing device really works for me. I know why to care about these different generations of people because I’m already aware, as I read their stories, that some of the purpose for telling them is to begin to piece together their impact on Ava’s life and the family’s tragic relationship with romantic love.
Also, this book has perhaps my new favorite literary bakery. I wanted to eat everything described – I wanted to bake it all! The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows was on track to be one of my favorites for the year.
And then. And then the climax of the novel was a horrifically violent and, I think, thematically unnecessary rape scene. I’m really disappointed, and I won’t be able to recommend it to any of my friends. With such a strong start - and even a strong middle - I felt really let down by the ending, which could have been handled in such a better way.