One of the most delightful surprises of my summer has been finding and reading The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton’s lovely modern day fairy tale of a girl born with wings. Ava Lavender was to others “myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. . . . a monster, a mutation . . . an angel.” But to herself, “I was just a girl.”
Through three generations of matriarchy, Walton weaves a tale of mystery, magic and beauty. Beauregard Roux and Maman leave their home in Normandy to come to America where Beauregard is certain his legendary skills as a phrenologist will soon have the family luxuriating in the gold that covers all of the streets of “Manhatine.” Unfortunately, Beauregard has missed the big phrenology craze and falls into the river late one night, leaving Maman to care for her two daughters alone.
Walton’s prose burbles with amusing, drily witty, stories of the characters.
[Maman] hardly made any noise at all. She rarely did. In fact, the doctor in the small village of Trouville-sur-Mer who delivered their first child, my grandmother, spent the length of the delivery looking up from his duties just to be sure the mother had not perished during the act. The silence in the room was so disturbing that when it came time for the birth of their next child — my grant-uncle Rene — the doctor refused at the last minute, leaving Beauregard to run the seventeen kilometers in his stocking feet to the town of Honfelur in a rush to find the nearest midwife.
Manhatine proves to be a bad decision all the way around as misfortune befalls three of Maman’s four children. But in time, Maman’s daughter Emilienne Adou Solange Roux grows up and, after falling in love three times before the eve of her nineteenth birthday, marries Connor Lavender (who she does not love) and moves across the country to Seattle. In Seattle, Emilienne becomes the proprietor of a very successful bakery, Viviane is born, falls in love and does not marry and soon gives birth to Ava, the girl with wings, and her twin brother Henry.
It’s notable and not surprising that Leslye Walton teaches middle school, because Ava is sort of the ultimate outsider. Trapped in her house with her mother, her best friend and her 12-foot wing span, Ava does not attend school and can only watch as her peers pass by underneath her window on their way to revelry. The book jacket profile says that Walton teaches her students “how to read and write and, most important, how to be kind to one another, even on days when they don’t really feel like it.”
Laura Esquivel, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Isabel Allende are clear influences. When Viviane is unhappy, no one will buy the bread she makes because it tastes like sorrow. The ghost of a small girl and a sad man watch over the Lavenders and try to warn them of disaster. And yet, amid the magic, much like in Love in the Time of Cholera, there is wisdom.
I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life’s ironies a bit more often than the average person. I collected them: how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn’t want to hurt you eventually would.
I enjoyed this book so very much and there are so many avenues for discussion, chief among them the Roux-Lavender women’s propensity to be rendered fools by love and whether the same is true of us all.
There are so many possibilities in this book. FRENCH BAKERY! And after reading, you may find yourself drawn to something else. Chocolate mousse, feuilletage, pore belle-Helene, Cheese rolls, brioche, sourdough, scones, whole grain breads, chocolate cake, creme brûlée, napoleons, apple tartes tatins, madeleines, glazed palmiers, cheesecake: all of these are noted in one two-page span. I would definitely do a dessert menu with coffee (for Seattle), tea and perhaps a liqueur like Grand Marnier or Cointreau or Champagne with Creme de Cassis.
I consulted another of my favorite books, Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard, which combines French recipes with a love story, and found my favorite recipe for a French-inspired dessert.
Quick and Dirty Chocolate Souffle Cake
Butter and sugar (for the mold)
7 1/4 oz bittersweet chocolate (65 percent cocoa is ideal)
5 eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar
a pinch of salt
1 tablespoon flour
Preheat the over to 350. Lightly butter and sugar a 10 inch ceramic tart mold. In the top of a double boiler or in the microwave, melt the chocolate with the coffee. Let cool.
Separate the eggs — whites into a large mixing bowl, yolks into a medium mixing bowl. Whisk the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar until the mixture is a light lemon yellow.
Pour the melted chocolate into the egg yolks and quickly which to combine, it will be quite thick. Add flows.
In the large bowl, beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until they hold a stiff peak. Gently fold a third of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Then add the chocolate mixture back into the remaining egg whites, folding gently to combine.
Pour the batter into the mold and bake for 20 minutes. Touch the center, if it feels reasonably firm, remove from the oven. If not, give it an extra minute or two but no more. The cake will wrinkle and fall after you remove it from the oven. Don’t despair, it’s supposed to.
Ahhhhh, macarons. The very word brings the saliva rushing to my mouth in anticipation of the crunchy, chewy, sweet divine deliciousness that is a French macaron. I will never forget standing outside Laduree in Paris, drooling over the displays of whipped sugar and tasting my first bite of caramelized salted heaven. Even the Laduree website looks gorgeous enough to eat. https://fabricantdedouceurs.laduree.com/en_fr/. I would never presume to try to bake a macaron myself, but fab fellow blogger The BraveTart doesn’t have any problem with it. Here’s a link to her step by step instructions. http://bravetart.com/recipes/Macarons
If you do make some, let me know how they turn out. And thank you again to Leslye for her thoughts.
You can either do a French blend with a Seattle (Starbucks) coffee house blend or create your own playlist.
Edith Piaf, the “little sparrow” — appropriate for so many reasons
Songs about angels:
You get the general idea.
Au revoir! Bon Chance!