Book Review: The Weight of Feathers, Anna-Marie McLemore (2015)

September 23rd, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A magical retelling of Romeo & Juliet – and with a much more satisfying ending, at that!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including domestic abuse, as well as rape.)

The rain on her dress and his shirt would stick them to each other, dissolve the skin between them, until their veins tangled like roots, and they breathed together, one scaled and dark-feathered thing.

Lace’s first encounter with Cluck is in the parking lot of a convenience store located on the outskirts of Almendro, California, a sleepy little town. Three of her cousins are attacking Cluck, pummeling him with their fists and feet, for no reason other than his perceived difference. Well-versed in the art of taking a beating – thanks to his older brother Dax – Cluck just lies there, taking it, hoping that his lack of participation will sap some of the fun out of their “game.” Lace chases his attackers away, and then offers Cluck ice cubes wrapped in her scarf to sooth his cuts and bruises. Both mistake the other for a local – when, in fact, they are members of two rival families of traveling performers.

The Palomas and Corbeaus travel all across North America, but always cross paths in Almendro; the crowd drawn there by the annual Blackberry Festival is just too good to pass up. For years, they were simply rivals, showpeople competing over the same sets of eyeballs. But one flooded lake and two dead performers – one from each family – turned them to enemies. Each blames the other for the “natural disaster,” with the stories and superstitions becoming more outlandish year after year. Each family can agree on one thing, however: the only acceptable way to touch a Paloma (or Corbeau) is in the pursuit of violence.

Their next meeting comes under even worse circumstances, if you can imagine. It’s after sunset, and both Lace and Cluck’s respective shows have concluded. Late to arrive home after a brush with death in a nylon fishing net, Lace is caught alone in the forest when the sky begins to rain adhesives. After years of ignoring safety regulations, the local chemical plant – which Cluck’s own grandfather once ran with care – ruptured a mixing tank, sending corrosive chemicals into the air. They react violently with the cotton of Lace’s dress, devouring the material and scalding her skin. As Lace begins to lose consciousness, a savior arrives: Cluck, who ran into the woods in search of his cousin Eugenie when the sirens began to blare.

Yet the very act of heroism that delivered Lace from death cursed her in the eyes of her family: one of Cluck’s feathers came between them, searing its mark into Lace’s skin. Once her Abuela spots the burn and realizes that she’s been touched by a Corbeau – infected with the family’s evil – she banishes Lace from the show.

Her father always dreamed something else – college, a home of her own, a “real” job – for his daughter, but Lace wants nothing more than to swim as a mermaid alongside her cousins. In a desperate effort to find a way back into the Palomas, Lace crosses over to the Corbeaus’ side of the forest. There she hopes to make Cluck indebted to her, so that he’ll have no choice but to reverse his magia negro and remove the feather from her arm. And, well, I think you know the rest: these two star-crossed lovers fall hard for one another, much to their families’ displeasure.

McLemore’s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is simply inspired: magical and creative, filled with equal touches of whimsy and harshness, but with an ending that’s about a kajillion times more satisfying (dare I say liberating?) than the original. This is William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – and also not, in the best way possible.

I haven’t read Romeo and Juliet since my freshman year in high school – over half a lifetime ago now – so most of my knowledge probably comes from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation. (Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes were so cute together, y’all!) One of the improvements made by McLemore – second only (maybe) to transporting us to a circus-type setting – is in the relationship between “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Lace and Cluck’s coupling isn’t that instalove that’s so often scoffed at by readers nowadays; nor are they just two spoiled teenagers with a keen fashion sense and a flair for the melodramatic.

Rather, Lace and Cluck bond over shared life circumstances. While the Palomas and Corbeaus mock the pedestrian nature of the others’ acts, both Lace and Cluck recognize the skill and artistry inherent in each performance. Whereas the Paloma women – dressed in mermaid tails and clamshell bras – dance in the water, flitting through the skeletons of those trees drowned in that fateful flood some twenty years ago, the Corbeaus strap feathered wings to their backs and make the living trees of the forest their stage. Both families don costumes, even though there is no need: the Paloma women have their own escalas, iridescent birthmarks that claim them as Palomas and provide them with protection and blessings; and the Corbeaus grow their own black crow’s feathers under their hair. Yet none of these are to be flaunted in their shows: sacred and revered, the scales and feathers are not for outsiders to gape at.

And both teenagers have been held captive by their families: by the strict discipline and unquestioning obedience required by the Paloma and Corbeau matriarchs; the superstitions that govern their behavior, particularly their interactions with the rival family; and the hate that they have been taught from birth.

Both families are insular and suspicious of outsiders, with a decidedly cruel streak. With his dark hair and brown skin that betrays his family’s Romani blood, Cluck serves as a constant reminder that the Corbeaus aren’t as cosmopolitan French as they’d like everyone to believe. Though his mother Nicole eschews her father’s gitano traditions, still she sees Cluck’s left-handedness as a sign of evil. And so, when her favorite son Dax beats Cluck – in what can only be described as ongoing, severe domestic violence – she looks the other way. Dax is the reason he’s called Cluck, instead of Luc; when he was nine and Dax was fourteen, Dax broke three of the fingers on his left hand. They were never set properly – Nicole didn’t want to pay to have them rebroken – and so they curled into a little claw, like a hen’s. Since Dax doesn’t much care for it, Cluck wears the nickname like a badge of honor.

Meanwhile, Lace’s family throws her out on the street for allowing a Corbeau to touch her bare skin – never mind that her only other choice was death. Though her Abuela‘s bullying is more emotional than physical, she’s all but given Lace an eating disorder; during the day, Lace starves herself so that she’ll fit into her tail, only to binge on junk food after the show. Lace is already burdened with self-esteem issues prior to the accident; the heart-shaped scar on her cheek, coupled with the hateful feather on her arm, threaten to turn her into a recluse. (Plus the PTSD doesn’t help.)

There’s some other stuff too, but spoilers. Suffice it to say that both families are pretty hardcore; they cling to their members with a stubbornness that’s suffocating, but are also quick to cut a son, granddaughter, or cousin loose given special circumstances. This push-pull could easily tear a weaker person apart. Luckily, Lace and Cluck are brave – and even more so when supported by the other.

Theirs is a love sweet and true – but with a shadow as dark as the Corbeau family feathers. Yet it’s a dappled shade, one that mirrors both the best and worst of us. Where the sun and moon shine through to kiss the grass, their love is a defiance of their fate and families; a reaffirmation of their self-determination and humanity; an appreciation of the other’s quirks and flaws – and an acceptance of their own. In the darkest recesses lie longstanding feuds, a seething hatred that is passed down from generation to generation, and an abhorrence and suspicion of difference. Stereotypes and prejudices in every flavor imaginable.

These are two young people who have been cast off by their families, yet still find the courage to move forward, in search of a new path – a better one, absent the bitterness and lies laid down by their predecessors. Their romance is sweet and tender, but also surprisingly sexy at times; a creature of exceptional beauty, much like Cluck and his red-tinged feathers, or baby-faced Lace and her unscathed scales.

The sharper edges of McLemore’s brutal yet hopeful story are softened by lovely imagery – including some rather surreal elements, many of them involving feathers: the mysteriously multiplying feathers in Lace’s suitcase, or the old woman who transforms into feathers, taking flight to show the young lovers their way.

Read it if you enjoyed Romeo and Juliet; read it if you didn’t. Read it for the mermaids and fairies, if nothing else. There’s magic in them there woods.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: YES! The Palomas are Hispanic or Latino, while the Corbeaus are French with some Romani ancestry. While many are pale-skinned with either blonde or brown hair, Cluck – the Romeo figure – is dark, with black-blue hair and dark brown skin. He takes after his grandfather in looks, and is one of the few members of his family to also honor his traditions. Cluck’s dark looks betray the family’s gitano blood – which they’d rather forget – making him a target of abuse and ridicule. Older brother Dax repeatedly abuses Cluck as their mother Nicole turns a blind eye. When they are fourteen and nine, respectively, Dax breaks three of the fingers in Cluck’s left hand; he’s left-handed, another quirk that marks him as “bad” in his family’s eyes. The breaks are never treated, and so the fingers are permanently curled under, like a claw – hence his nickname.

On the Paloma side, Tia Lora suffered several miscarriages due to physical abuse by her now-dead husband. Lace seems to be on her way to developing an eating disorder; during the day, she starves herself so that she can fit into her tail, and then binges on junk food after the show. After the “accident” at the chemical plant, Lace shows distinct signs of PTSD; every time it rains, she panics, convinced that the rain will melt her skin. She’s also very self-conscious about the physical scars she suffered, particularly the heart-shaped burn on her cheek and the feather on her arm.

Traveling performers, both families face suspicion and prejudice in the towns they pass through.

Each chapter heading features a saying in either Spanish or French, along with a translation, and the text contains a number of words and phrases in Cluck and Lace’s native (second?) languages as well.

Animal-friendly elements: When Lace asks Cluck where they get the feathers for their costumes – “Do you kill the peacocks for them?” – Cluck seems taken aback. He drives Lace to a field where the offspring of two long-ago discarded pet peacocks live alongside a colony of feral cats. When they molt at the end of the summer, Cluck sweeps up their feathers for future use.

 

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