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The Weight of Feathers
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message 1: by Amy (last edited Feb 23, 2016 01:30PM) (new)

Amy | 36 comments Mod
Oh, Romeo and Juliet.

I was so optimistic that, after the mandatory read of Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade – and the mandatory viewing of the Zeffirelli film, fast-forwarded through the naughty bits – I would never again have to have anything to do with Romeo and Juliet. Obviously that was a short-sighted optimism born of my vast loathing for R+J’s overblown, overly dramatic, overly contrived approach to romance, machismo and death in our fair Verona.

Obviously.

Because star-crossed lovers are one of those things: a tale as old as time, love at first sight, meteors on moonless nights. Something that is do deeply embedded in so many societies and cultures that it comes up time and time and time again – not just in remakes and retellings, modern teens cloaked in mini-skirts and bravado spitting Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, but in transformative stories that are less overt, but no less fundamental, in their homage.

I spent years, in the wake of my 14-year-old dissatisfaction with Romeo and Juliet, wondering what the everlasting hell it is about that particular play that drives me insaaaaaaaane. And finally, in college, right as Claire Danes and Leonardo di Caprio took their shot (complete with, Holy Mother of God, armor and wings), a friend explained it to me: Shakespeare’s comedies are built on contrivances, coincidences, situational humor, if you will, often as much as spoken humor. Too bad for old Will that I hate pretty much everything about that (but, Will, call me, I love your tragedies!). And Romeo and Juliet is, of course, written like a comedy, not a tragedy, tragically for me, ha ha.

So, for me, the success of The Weight of Feathers, an identifiable addition to the grand tradition of loving someone your family hates, depends entirely on its, frankly, frustratingly, overcoming its source material. Are the plot developments natural? Is the love story based on more than teenaged pheromones? Can I believe that these families hate each other? Is the writing so awesome that I don’t care about any of the above? Let’s find out.

The Weight of Feathers, by Anna-Marie McLemore, features two families, the Palomas and the Corbeaus, both of whom are part of a tradition of traveling performers in California’s Central Valley. The Palomas perform a mermaid show, while the Corbeaus, wearing fabulous wings, use the trees as high wires. (And just when you start to think that maybe this isn’t exactly a fantasy book after all, wait for it, the Paloma girls all bear a handful of fish scales and the Corbeaus grow feathers under their hair. Welcome to magical realism.) Even the language for the families is different, as the book is peppered with (delightfully, often untranslated) Spanish for the Palomas and French for the Corbeaus. And all of that almost works.

The part that works, and works tremendously, is the setting. I loved it. I’m a rural girl and I’m a sucker for a rural book. It’s like finding my people. (And conversely, urban fantasy is rarely my thing.) Surprisingly, I also loved the nomadic performer element. I usually subscribe to the if-you’ve-read-one-you’ve-read-them-all theory of YA books about preternaturally good teenaged performers in fantasy settings. But here, McLemore has found the right version of that to meld perfectly with the larger context of her setting: sort of low-rent, quasi-circus acts touring the Central Valley in the summer, trying to drum up interest from people who don’t really have money to spare, but with little kids who are wide-eyed with wonder and want to take pictures with mermaids. That, I’m buying all day long.

(Side note: What I’m not buying is one of the book blurbs stating that McLemore’s “fantasy world [is] as captivating as that of The Night Circus.” I could do a whole Sirens presentation on book blurbs and expectations and the uselessness of comparing the McLemore’s Central Valley with its quiet desperation and dependence on family and dangerous myths with Erin Morgenstern’s after-dark circus of ruthlessness and glass shards and wonder.)

What I’m not buying from The Weight of Feathers is its family feud. The book is set up just a little bit like a mystery: you don’t fully discover the reasons for the generations-long hate until the end of the book – which requires that the reader be willing to fully engage with the book without understanding its foundation. My reading experience suffered significantly for it. The Weight of Feathers features an ocean of hate, fear, and legend, but without the reader’s fully understanding the why of all that, the characters are left to drown in it, while the reader is expected to take on faith that the characters are behaving logically, given what they know and we don’t.

And the love story? The littlest mermaid, Lace, falls in love with the broken bird, Cluck. (Not since Po have I been so annoyed with a name.) Cluck saves Lace from a catastrophe, she thinks he cursed her, she leaves her family to get the curse removed and, ta-da, falls in love. It’s a little silly, and I’m always annoyed when the girl needs saving, but hey, I’ve read sillier and so have all of you.

Where McLemore truly shines, though, is her language. It’s lush, it’s poetic, it’s simply lovely. Whatever her second book is, I’d read it for that alone.

And you, fine people? What did you think?

Amy


message 2: by Francesca (new) - added it

Francesca Forrest (asakiyume) | 5 comments I haven't read the book, but I *loved* reading your review of it. Some reviews are a pleasure to read all on their own, and this is one.

I feel like I'd love the elements you describe loving--the rural setting and the wandering-performer thing. I don't think I'd be so into the love story either. Anyway, though, this makes me at least want to add it to my to-read list!


message 3: by Shveta (new) - added it

Shveta Thakrar (shveta-thakrar) | 5 comments I love this book. The language is so elegant and beautiful--and the second book, out this fall, is just as lovely. (I got to critique it, and I can't wait for it to come out!)

I personally loved the world she'd built up, her in-depth understanding of racism and group ugliness, along with the protagonists' individual struggles, so for me, the story worked. (I am usually less interested in love stories than the surrounding narrative, anyway, though.)


message 4: by Francesca (new) - added it

Francesca Forrest (asakiyume) | 5 comments Sounding better and better!


message 5: by Tina (new)

Tina Myers | 2 comments I second Francesca's initial comment. Having a story within a review is a treat.


message 6: by Tina (new)

Tina Myers | 2 comments I second Francesca's initial comment. Having a story within a review is a treat.


message 7: by Hallie (new)

Hallie - | 4 comments Mod
This was more my book than yours, I think, but that's because when we read Shakespeare, I can tolerate Romeo and Juliet more than you can. Despite an ending that makes me rage!

I think that this is a book I'd hand to people to are getting their footing as writers and having trouble finding that prose ground between not enough and too much; this has really beautiful writing that is beautiful because it's beautiful, but not because it had three pretty adjectives, or because it was spare. It floats. It's something to float in. And it's tough to pull that off.

I also especially like that this "Romeo and Juliet"--shorthanding, here--has a feud that is still in living memory, and that it isn't something passed down for so long that the details have been forgotten. The details may have been misunderstood, and there's the story: over and over again, we misunderstand, and we struggle to find a path forward.

So, this is a story of longing, and loss, and reconciliation, and a lovely one, infused with traces of magic.

(Boy, am I late on this!)


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