I purchased THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, Anna-Marie McLemore’s stunning magical realism YA, as part of Kate Brauning‘s Diverse Books giveaway. I was pointed to the offer after the Orlando shooting, and picked this in part because McLemore is Latina and queer (her much-anticipated next book, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, has LGBT as well as multicultural themes). But I already had her debut on my radar and rightly so, because wow, I really enjoyed this.
THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS is your classic Romeo and Juliet story, but with enchanting, magical realism, multicultural, traveling-performers twists: the opposing families are the Corbeaus, French Romani tightrope walkers born with feathers in their hair, who don feathered wings and dance in the highest treetops, and the Palomas, Mexican-American mermaid performers with scale-like birthmarks, who put on tails and swim as la sirenas. For over twenty years, the families have been bitter enemies, to the point that each considers the others cursed. But then a forbidden–but surprisingly fresh–romance ensues between Lace Paloma, the newest mermaid in their traveling show, and Cluck Corbeau, the often-abused, cast-aside member of her family’s most hated rivals.
Note: as it’s hard to find prominent Romani actors/models in Cluck’s age group, and I don’t feel all that comfortable pulling up pics of random people from news articles and whatnot, and I did want to use someone whose ethnic makeup was at least close, I used Avan Jogia–who is not Romani, but has ancestry in India, where the Roma originated from.
First, I love the premise. I’m fascinated with professional mermaids myself–in fact, I follow one, Hannah Mermaid, who also talks ocean conservation, on Instagram!–and love stories about traveling caravans and families. Like many people, I’ve been long enthralled by the Romani–you might know them better as “Gypsies”, which is actually a racial slur–but very ignorant about them. So among so many other other things, it was a delight to finally read a respectful and researched story about their culture; McLemore mentions having spoken to an actual Romani scholar.
But if I was smitten by the setup, I was full-on infatuated by the execution. McLemore has a very strong, distinct voice that’s tremendously well-suited both to magical realism and the timeless quality of the story. The prose is lush and delectable, the imagery is swooningly gorgeous, and the world is just beautiful. But the story isn’t fluffy cotton candy as it could well have gotten away with: while it so often does feel like a bedtime story or fairy tale, it actually has a lot of emotional and thematic resonance. It’s a love story, but it’s also very much a about hatred. Though the author clearly shares her star-crossed lovers’ genuine respect and love for their Romani and Mexican cultures, the novel is surprisingly unsentimental: there’s serious complexity in the portrayal of how family and tradition can be both magical and oppressive. It addresses themes of abuse, gender, sex, and body image. For both Cluck and Lace, sexual awakening is intertwined with danger.
Camila Mendes as (the awesomely named) Lace Paloma
I generally haven’t been terribly critical about the books I review on this blog. That’s because, as an aspiring author myself, I really have been trying to review books that I like and appreciate and want to spread the word about. However, while I am really really sincere about how much I enjoyed this read, there is one element of the novel that I disliked enough that I feel I have to mention it. Without spoilers, there’s one twist that I think is at least several steps too complicated: in my opinion, it’s up there with The Kite Runner for “unnecessary paternity reveals that are actually thematically less interesting.”
That being said, that’s mostly an issue of personal taste, and it didn’t really impact my affection for this novel that much (which is also true of The Kite Runner). I still think this might’ve been one of my favorite reads this year, I still think Anna-Marie McLemore is one of my new fave authors, and I’m even more excited for WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS.
Thanks to Pop Goes the Reader for the beautiful banner image!