Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner
Vaclav and Lena, both the children of Russian émigrés, are at the same time from radically different worlds. While Vaclav’s burgeoning love of performing magic is indulged by hard-working parents pursuing the American dream, troubled orphan Lena is caught in a domestic situation no child should suffer through. Taken in as one of her own by Vaclav’s big-hearted mother, Lena might finally be able to blossom; in the naive young magician’s eyes, she is destined to be his “faithful assistant”…but after a horrific discovery, the two are ripped apart without even a goodbye. Years later, they meet again. But will their past once more conspire to keep them apart? (via Goodreads)
While reading this book, I did something I never do. I went on Goodreads and looked at some reviews. I was interested to know what Russian immigrants and their children thought of Vaclav & Lena. To me, it felt like there were a lot of stereotypes being presented. The voice of the book, especially when the narrative was focused on Vaclav, was full of a “was having, am being” dialect that really wore on me. Not surprisingly, the reviews of this book are pretty divided. Mostly, anyone who has emigrated from Russia to the US or is a child of immigrant parents doesn’t care for it. Aside from the stereotypes, the other most common comment was about how long it takes for young children to learn a second language (not long at all) and how many Russian parents only speak Russian in the home as a way of preserving heritage.
So, this isn’t an accurate presentation of the immigrant experience, and I wonder why Tanner, whose experience this isn’t, chose to write it.
Then there is the story. The first third of this book is about our titular characters at age nine. Vaclav is magic-obsessed and has been Lena’s only friend. He believes in two things: that he will be a great magician and that Lena will marry him and be his assistant. His ambitions are somewhat wince-worthy especially since Vaclav seems utterly blind to anything else going on. But then again, he is nine years-old.
The next two sections of the book outline the next eight years of their lives as they are apart, and also Lena’s past before she knew Vaclav and his family. The last section is their meeting again, at age seventeen. Lena has a traumatic past, some of which she cannot remember. On her seventeenth birthday she decides to find her parents and that the only person she feels she can trust to help her is Vaclav. So, she calls him up because he still lives where he’s always lived. (And I kind of wonder why she never called before.) What follows is…a lot of drama. Most of which seems very out of place. I found the ending, how characters ultimately choose to treat Lena, to be somewhat distasteful.
For all of that, I read this book very quickly, almost compulsively. Despite its faults, I wanted to know what was going to happen to Vaclav and Lena, or rather what had happened. The story bears comparison to Eleanor & Park, but less well written and a much less satisfying ending (and if you know how Eleanor & Park ends, you know that’s saying something).
Publisher: The Dial Press
Publication date: May 17th 2011
Why did I choose to read this book? *sheepishly* You did notice the part about Vaclav wanting to be a magician, right?