Haley Tanner’s debut novel Vaclav and Lena is a particular brand of boy meets girl story that was a true delight to read. Vaclav and Lena are both Russian immigrant children living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood. They meet when placed in the same elementary school ESL class. On a trip to Coney Island, an outing that marks their first real foray into friendship, the two find themselves unable to board a single ride on account of their short stature.
But a quick trip to the sideshow is within their budget and bars no restrictions on short or young patrons. Vaclav and Lena are transfixed by the magic show and spend the rest of their afternoons perfecting their magic act at Vaclav’s house until his mother sends Lena home after dinner. Vaclav the Magnificent and his assistant the Lovely Lena anxiously await the day they can take their own act to the boardwalk at Coney Island.
Lena’s is a heartbreaking story. She never knew her parents and so lives with her aunt, a woman who works as a stripper and only agreed to take custody of her niece for the monthly check Lena’s presence brings in. Vaclav’s mother Rasia takes pity on the poor girl, doing her best to care for the motherless girl. But when her desire to do right for Lena leads Rasia to take matters into her own hands, Vaclav’s mother’s actions put an untimely end to her son’s relationship with the young girl. Nine year old Vaclav is unable to comprehend why his mother would make such a decision that serves to remove Lena from his life. But after a seven year separation, the two childhood friends find themselves reunited under sensitive circumstances.
Though the true crux of Tanner’s story is Vaclav and Lena’s reunion, it isn’t until the final 70 pages of the book that we are even introduced to their teenaged selves. But this late placement is far from detrimental to the book as it allows readers an opportunity to really get to know both Vaclav and Lena. Tanner narrates with an authentic voice, describing with alarming clarity the unique situation in which these immigrant children find themselves. Though Lena has lived in the United States for as long as she can remember, her exposure to the English language has been rather minimal, wrecking havoc in her school life and loading an overwhelming degree of anxiety upon young Lena’s shoulders. Quiet and subdued, Lena often follows behind Vaclav and remains practically invisible among groups of adults, so frightened is she of speaking incorrectly and embarrassing herself.
Though Vaclav has picked up on the English language more readily than Lena, his is still an outsider among most of his peers. In fact, before Lena’s entrance into his life, Vaclav had no friends to speak of. For both Lena and Vaclav, magic offers a welcome respite from the real world and all the fear, misunderstandings, and confusion it brings. Though this magic act is the source of their tight bond, it is a worrisome hobby in the eyes of Rasia who imagines that Vaclav and Lena’s performance will only end with the two subject to further ridicule and embarrassment.
Tanner’s novel is as unforgettable as Vaclav and Lena are to one another during their teenaged years apart. Unpretentious and honest, Vaclav and Lena was a fairly simple story, both in narrative style and structure but completely affecting nonetheless. Tanner’s no frills writing, paired with a unique imagination, delivers a stand out debut novel that I highly encourage readers of all sorts to try.
***While seeking out more information about Haley Tanner, I found this piece from the New York Times about Tanner and her husband who was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma just months before they met. The article provides some brief background and the video clip is pretty moving as well. The piece offers some interesting insight to Tanner after completing her novel.