VACLAV & LENA by Haley Tanner

Book Quote:

“They did not know that Vaclav and Lena would wander past the famous Coney Island Sideshow and see magic tricks and Heather Holliday and her golden fringed bikini for the first time. They could not know that this would be the beginning of everything.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (JUL 4, 2011)

Once upon a time, in the exotic land of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, a young boy named Vaclav – an aspiring magician – falls in love with a thin, skittish girl named Lena.  And, like any alchemy, the combustion is magical…and it endures.

There is a refreshing fairy tale quality about Vaclav & Lena, a lovely debut book by Haley Tanner.  Slowly but surely, I fell under the spellbinding tale of this would-be magician and his girl.  It’s an endearing tale that unfolds with gentle fireworks rather than major pyrotechnics – rather like the magic seen in the starlit sky on a summer’s night in Coney Island.

Vaclav is a young boy hero:  extremely bright, precocious, very loyal and good, and filled with innocent dreams of becoming a famous magician. Central to this goal is the assistance of Lena, a troubled and introverted girl who is imprisoned by her lack of an English vocabulary.  In the midst of their grand plans, Vaclav’s caring mother, Rasia, unearths a tragic secret about Lena’s home life with her negligent, drug-addicted aunt.  And overnight – for Vaclav – Lena vanishes into thin air, like a cruel magic trick.

Fast-forward seven years.  Vaclav is now a tall, handsome teenager, attending Brooklyn Tech, thoroughly assimilated into American culture, with a svelte American girlfriend.  It’s all come together with him with one exception:  he misses his childhood love.  Eventually, the reader is reacquainted with Lena and we learn what has happened to her in the interceding years and who she has become in the interim.

In a less capable writer’s hands, this book would simply be a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl formula book, with the Russian émigré theme as a major overlay.  But Haley Tanner is more than “merely capable.” She writes a love story and like all real love stories, there’s a touch of magic that’s part-and-parcel with the theme. In one interview, she says, “Magicians are like story-tellers in that we know that the quarter does not disappear, that the woman is not sliced in half, but we suspend our disbelief for a time and allow ourselves to be carried away.  It is the same thing we do when we read a novel about a character we know to be fictional, but we cry and laugh and love along with them anyway.”

We believe in that magic.  There is inevitability in this book, a strong belief that love will eventually find its way and what’s meant to be will be.  “How did it happen,” Vaclav ponders, “that Lena went overnight from a yearning to an addiction? She seems to have planted herself into this life and sprouted, almost instantly, without his knowing, from a tiny seed into an entire jungle.” We become enchanted with the idea that Vaclav possesses the determination – and Lena possesses the will – to trick ordinary fate and prevail.  As a result, we are able to strip away the minor flaws in the plot and pacing (such as repetition) and surrender to the overall ambiance.

Vaclav & Lena crosses over to the YA category in the best way; as instruction on the distorted thinking of young and unaware children and the awkward diction and resulting problems of non-English-speaking immigrants. It has much to say about trauma and healing, the role of repressed memories, the assimilation of Russian immigrants, and the real magic we can perform through healing lies and unconditional love.  And, as a one-time Brooklynite, I felt the sense of place was excellently depicted.   Simply magical.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: The Dial Press (May 17, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of: 

The Seas by Samantha Hunt

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas


July 4, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Debut Novel, NE & New York, New York City

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