Haley Tanner has written a small gem of a debut novel in Vaclav & Lena. If you have ever loved the girl or boy next door or down the street, you will not want to pass up this book. But Tanner adds into the love mix between two young people, the love of a mother who only wants the very best for her son.
The setting is Brooklyn and the central cast of characters consists of Vaclav, his protective mother, Rasia, his alcoholic father, Oleg, and wonderful Lena, the neighbor girl Vaclav will love forever. It is a story of two Russian immigrant families. Vaclav is lucky, coming from an emotionally fractious but intact family, and Lena, well, she’s not so lucky.
Lena and Vaclav are schoolmates. Vaclav is ten years old (an entire month older than Lena) and has convinced Lena that their greatest ambition in life is to become Vaclav the Magnificent Boy Magician and his assistant, the Lovely Lena. Lena, who lives almost alone with her aunt spends a lot of time with Vaclav’s family. After school, she and Vaclav do their homework together (including their ESL work), then practice their magic act, and finally eat dinner, after which Vaclav’s mother walks Lena back to her apartment, which is usually dark and empty.
One day Lena is absent from her ESL class. In fact, Lena is mysteriously absent from school altogether and all of Vaclav’s dreams of his beautiful assistant vanish with her. His mother does not encourage him to find out what happened and the reader understands that Rasia knows more than she tells her son. The years pass and Vaclav is a senior in high school when Lena comes back into his life.
But life is never as simple as the ten-year-old’s magic that Vaclav still dreams of, and we know that many immigrants from Russia carry their stories, layered and hiding within each other like nested wooden dolls, into their new homeland. Lena has never known what happened to her parents or how she came to America with only her aunt. She knows nothing of the Russian Mafia.
In a narrative voice that rings with directness and a bit of naiveté, Tanner tells a much darker story than first imagined. By the time Lena comes back into Vaclav’s life, his father is still the alcoholic and his mother is still the woman who wants what’s best for her son. Of his new girlfriend, the author writes: “It is not necessary for Rasia to like this girlfriend of her son, but is necessary for the girl to adore him.” Lena’s return requires not magic, but honesty, bravery and truth. What really happened to her parents? Why was she taken away from her aunt? Will Vaclav always love her as he did when they were children? Tanner has written a novel striking in its tenderness.