Kirkus Reviews QR Code
VACLAV & LENA by Haley Tanner Kirkus Star


by Haley Tanner

Pub Date: May 31st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6931-6
Publisher: Dial Press

A pair of young Russian immigrants, each desperately infatuated with the other, are parted and reunited in Brighton Beach.

This debut novel by Brooklynite Tanner about the inarticulateness of young love was preempted at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and rightly so. The author captures the subculture of the Russian émigré subculture in New York with verve and realism but infuses her two leads with such innocence and zeal that they become impossibly charismatic by the story’s end. The book opens on 10-year-old Vaclav, a charismatic lad whose hero and role model is Harry Houdini. His other half is Lena, a shy waif of a girl whose struggle to learn English and lack of family has left her marooned in a strange land.  For Vaclav, things just are. “One day being a famous magician,” and “Lena being lovely assistant,” are eventualities. In Lena, Tanner captures so well the captivity of English as a second language. “So even though Lena is a very loud person on the inside, and very funny and smart, and sings songs and thinks big, loud thoughts, on the outside she seems quiet and shy,” she writes. Their life together seems meant to be. But when Vaclav’s mother Rasia discovers a terrible violation by Lena’s guardians, the girl is sent into the depths of Protective Services, where she’s lost for seven years. Vaclav whispers goodnight to Lena every night, while Lena keeps her affection for Vaclav locked away along with all the other secrets she keeps so close. Once reunited, they ask those terrible questions: “Did you remember me? Was I as important to you as you were to me? Was I alone in my remembering? Or were you with me the whole time?” These two graceful creatures must find some space between all their secrets in order to find happiness, alone or apart.

A terrific, enlightened debut that captures the fervor that hides in naïveté.