Vaclav & Lena
Haley Tanner

Random House
Hardcover/402 pages
ISBN: 978-1400069316
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". . . meant to be poignant and heart breaking, but something gets in the way."

A tale of young love that demonstrates more abuse and control than love.

Vaclav and Lena are friends, both in the same grade and both spend a lot of time together. Lena is shy because of her lack of English around other children and quiet—most of the time. Vaclav lives for magic and his idol is David Copperfield. Lena’s idol is the girl in the fringed gold bikini who is Fredini’s assistant.

Through their younger years, Vaclav and Lena are inseparable, at least until Marina and Christina begin hanging out with Lena. What was once a close friendship becomes secret at school at Lena’s insistence, until the night Rasia goes to check on Lena and does not come home until the next morning. Lena has been taken away and Rasia refuses to tell Vaclav where. Each night he says Lena’s name, believing she will come back to him. Of Lena, there is no sign. And Vaclav waits.

Haley Tanner’s story of the young Russian immigrants is meant to be poignant and heart breaking, but something gets in the way. Like Vaclav’s mother Rasia, I found Lena difficult to trust or to like. She was sneaky and controlling. There was something off about Lena that nothing in the rest of the novel could account for. Vaclav and Lena is supposed to be a love story, but it is a dysfunctional love. Rasia wishes that Vaclav would find someone who loves him more than he loves them; his heart already belongs to Lena.

There is a singsong quality to the prose in the beginning of the book before Lena and Vaclav grow up that is at times grating and tedious. It is not so much the words as it is the syntax, and there is an under current of wrongness throughout the story that taints what seems meant to be a simple tale of young love and faithfulness. Vaclav and Lena seem younger than the nine and ten stated in the last part of the book, but they both fit their seventeen years at the end.

It was difficult to reconcile Rasia’s fear that every time Vaclav’s bedroom door was closed the children would be naked and writhing around on the bed, especially considering how Rasia claims she loves Lena as a daughter. Rasia does not trust Lena and little things about her actions made me mistrust her as well.

Tanner writes about the Russian immigrants of Brooklyn with intimacy. Her characters are well developed, despite Lena’s stated personality and the one that shows more clearly through her actions. If this is love, I’m with Rasia. Vaclav should find someone else. Lena is not in my estimation worthy of his trust as is amply proven in the last chapter. Tanner knows her subject well, and she writes with confidence and surety. It is unfortunate that some of her characters are so unlikeable.

Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell