I have fallen in love with Vaclav & Lena. I say this not for a lack of something more insightful, but because Haley Tanner's debut novel is simply so lovable. Her characters, quirky and vivid, are presented with the right mix of vulnerability and spunkiness, which quickly endears them to the reader. Upon finishing the novel, I was left feeling as though I had met good people - all flawed in some way and all full of good intentions. The last time I felt this way was while reading Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (also a brilliant debut novel), and like Pettigrew, Tanner's novel contains a realistic, character-driven narrative.
Vaclav & Lena is also reminiscent of the widely acclaimed Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen; both are steeped in the ritz and charm of magic shows and circuses, but their distinction lies in how the two authors approach these similar themes. Vaclav & Lena thrusts the reader into the quirky, somewhat dark lives of immigrant children who dream of escaping reality to join the circus, whereas the characters in Water for Elephants actually do live in the fantasy of the big top. So if you are intrigued by stories about realistic people who you can imagine as your own neighbors or friends, Vaclav & Lena is sure to delight.
Tanner's ear for language is demonstrated through her rendering of the broken English and awkward diction that perpetuates the Russian immigrant community where the novel takes place. Her characters speak using delicate turns of phrase and gently bent syntax, which gives just enough flavor to make the voices distinct without being overdone. The accents notably shift and change as the characters - some of whom enter the story quite young - mature and change.
As Vaclav and Lena's lives progress and intertwine in ways they do not expect, the reader is compelled to continue turning pages out of care for the titular characters, as well as the supporting cast. The story includes big dreams, terrible events, and long-kept secrets, and the novel's plot progresses at a smooth, even clip.
Tanner's knack for detail carries over into the rest of the story, and serves her well, whether she's describing the family's fragrant borscht dinner or the sunny, salty boardwalk on Coney Island. The novel is marketed as a love story, but Vaclav & Lena goes beyond the simplicity of a one-dimensional romance. Tanner's debut novel is as much about a time period, a neighborhood, different generations, and an immigrant culture as it is about the relationship between a boy and a girl.
But more than the fine qualities already mentioned, my deepest admiration for Vaclav & Lena is owed to the novel's conclusion, which I won't reveal here, but suffice to say that it ties together magic, storytelling, and love. The process of reading toward this ending is a true pleasure, though it's easy to fall in love with Vaclav & Lena in the first few pages as well.
This review was originally published in May 2011, and has been updated for the February 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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