Title: Vaclav & Lena
Author: Haley Tanner
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Vaclav and Lena seem destined for each other. They meet as children in an ESL class in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Vaclav is precocious and verbal. Lena, struggling with English, takes comfort in the safety of his adoration, his noisy, loving home, and the care of Rasia, his big-hearted mother. Vaclav imagines their story unfolding like a fairy tale, or the perfect illusion from his treasured Magician’s Almanac, but among the many truths to be discovered in Haley Tanner’s wondrous debut is that happily ever after is never a foregone conclusion.
One day, Lena does not show up for school. She has disappeared from Vaclav and his family’s lives as if by a cruel magic trick. For the next seven years, Vaclav says goodnight to Lena without fail, wondering if she is doing the same somewhere. On the eve of Lena’s seventeenth birthday he finds out.”
Thoughts: On the surface, Vaclav & Lena is a charming story about friendship and love. Underneath the surface, there is a much darker story about truth and the lengths one is willing to go to protect a loved one from it. The truth is never what one expects, and in this debut novel of Haley Tanner, when the truth is finally uncovered, it has the potential to tear apart relationships of all sorts.
One of the most appealing aspects of the novel is the voice of the narrator. As the narrator switches point of view from Vaclav to Lena to Vaclav’s mom, the narration takes on the individual idiosyncrasies of the English language depending on each character’s fluency with English. In the beginning, everyone is still becoming familiar with English, and the narration takes on a sing-song hesitancy to it that is very authentic to a non-native speaker. As Vaclav and Lena become more fluent in their adopted country, the narration becomes more fluent as well. Each point of view creates a clear voice for the respective character, which helps make each character more three-dimensional and fully developed than just the dialogue alone.
Vaclav, as a young boy with big dreams, is a fascinating character. In spite of everything to which he is exposed, he remains refreshing innocent and full of potential. It is not until quite late in the story where the reader understands just how unusual this naivety is given his close relationship with Lena. Even his fascination with magic and his dreams of being a magician are quaint. However, this, in no way, makes Vaclav & Lena unrealistic. Rather, it adds an air of old-fashioned charm to the overall story, one in which anything is possible.
However, Ms. Tanner tempers the dreams with a cold dash of reality and tragedy in Lena. Her mysterious past and troubled childhood are the perfect foil for Vaclav’s more idyllic childhood. Lena and Vaclav are opposites in almost every manner possible, and their relationship is all the more believable in spite of, or even because of their willingness to overlook these opposite tendencies.
Ms. Tanner is going to be an author to watch. In Vaclav & Lena, she has created an old-fashioned friendship novel that transcends time and finds its core in the relationships of the story. Vaclav & Lena has a timeless quality to it that renders it difficult to pinpoint to any one decade. While it does take place in the twenty-first century, the reader can easily picture the story taking place 100 years earlier. The heart of the story does not depend on the setting, and the story is stronger for it.
Thank you to Erika Greber from Random House for my advanced copy!