The Weight of Feathers

Cover image for The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-05865-2

“On ne marie pas les poules avec les renards. One does not wed hens with foxes.”

The Corbeaus and the Palomas have been rivals for more than twenty years. As travelling performers, every year they cross paths at the Almendro blackberry festival, and their simmering hatred threatens to destroy both shows.  Sixteen-year-old Lace Paloma has just become a mermaid in her family’s river performance, and she knows only what they have told her about the Corbeaus. She has never seen them perform, and tries to steer clear their magia negra. So when she tells off her cousins for beating a young man she assumes to be an Almendro local, none of them realizes that this is the reclusive Cluck Corbeau, who builds the wings in which the Corbeaus perform as they dance through the treetops. And when Cluck carries her to the hospital after a disaster strikes Almendro, he doesn’t realize he has touched la magie noire of the Palomas. But when Lace’s family learns the truth, they cast her out, and Lace seeks out Cluck, determined to free herself of his curse.

The Weight of Feathers is a largely realistic YA romance with just a subtle touch of magic. The Corbeaus—who are descended from French Romani tightrope walkers—hide the feathers that grow beneath their hair, and the Palomas conceal the shimmering scales that fleck their backs inside their mermaid costumes. They each believe that the other possesses dark magic, but can never quite prove that their rivals are responsible for their ill luck. The accident that strikes Almendro, although not well explained at first, is industrial in nature. Superstition and bad blood have caused deaths before, and may yet take another life as the rivalry between the two families rekindles.

At the beginning of the book, the rivalry between the Palomas and the Corbeaus is so pronounced that their accounts of the feud sound like entirely different events, rather than two sides of the same story. Each believes the other possesses black magic, and that a Paloma must never touch a Corbeau without shedding blood. But when Lace and Cluck come together, the accounts begin to overlap and make a kind of sense, as the troubled history of the rival families is revealed. Almendro—a fictional town in California’s Central Valley—is a realistic backdrop that has its own history and problems, facing the difficulties of industrialization and poverty, and the harsh reality of the state’s long drought.

Lace and Cluck’s forbidden romance has definite shades of Romeo and Juliet, although the two warring families are ruled by iron-fisted women: Lace’s Abuela, and Cluck’s mother, Nicole Corbeau. Their rivalry is tinged with disparagement of one another’s heritage, and Cluck also seems to be an odd man out in his own family, bullied by his older brother, unchecked by their mother. Both families have some unhealthy beliefs, and Lace and Cluck are both of an age where they are beginning to ask questions and push back. However, they also have important relationships within their families. Cluck is close to his grandfather, Alain Corbeau, who once worked at the plant in Almendro. Lace’s father is a fierce ally who married into the family, and is willing to challenge the restrictions it places on her. Her Tía Lora is another outsider who married a Paloma. Family in all its complexity is on display here as the teens try to define their identities both within and apart from their circle of relations.

The tension in this story builds slowly, and so many answers are not immediately forthcoming. But McLemore’s atmospheric prose and my own curiosity kept me going. The subtle magical elements also serve as contrasting imagery, further setting the two families apart. Each chapter is headed by a French proverb or a Spanish dicho, which ground Lace and Cluck in their cultural backgrounds. Speaking French or Spanish among themselves is just one of the ways that the families deliberately differentiate themselves from one another, and also keep themselves apart from those who do not share their way of life. Inevitably, I was sucked into the forbidden romance and magic realism, and found myself enjoying the story despite the slow start.

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