Book Review: ‘Vaclav & Lena’ by Haley Tanner

How does a boy from Russia with a Czech first name come to live in New York and meet the girl of his dreams when he is just ten years old? When I put it that way, it may sound silly or absurd, but the way Haley Tanner describes it in her debut novel, Vaclav & Lena, it is riveting. And very sweet.

Vaclav, one of the title characters, is, at the beginning of the novel, a ten-year-old son of Russian immigrants. His parents are stereotypical* Russians: his father drinks a lot of vodka and longs for the old country to the extent that he never learns English properly (or at least never accepts it in his life, preferring to spend his salary on Russian satellite TV). His mother, on the other hand, has an iron will – it was at her instigation that the family immigrated to America in search of a better life and even though she retains many qualities of the stereotypical pushy, involved Russian mother, she insists that the family speak English at home.

Vaclav lives a happy life, content to practice his magic show after school with his best friend, Lena, who is the complete opposite of him. She is shy and speaks English poorly (due to lack of practice) and does not have a happy home life the way Vaclav does. She lives with an aunt who does not care for her properly, which leads Vaclav’s mother Rasia** to take Lena under her wing.

Vaclav is devastated when Lena suddenly disappears from his life one day. The two go seven years without seeing each other (but they do not forget about each other), until Lena’s seventeenth birthday, when she unexpectedly re-enters Vaclav’s life and he finally finds out what happened to her.

Though I enjoyed this novel in general, as it is quite amusing to read, I did not like the ending. The ending leaves the reader hanging, wanting more because there are too many unanswered questions. This mainly stems from the author’s desire to give the book a happy ending that does not fit with the story as a whole. It’s not that any happy ending would not fit with the book; it’s just that the one chosen does not fit.

Some other reviewers had a problem with how Vaclav and Lena spoke English – they said the title characters’ way of speaking was too much like that of an adult non-native English speaker. Personally, I thought the dialogue was believable. It is quirky and adds to the character of the story.

*Note: I used the word stereotypical here, but I do not mean that all Russian parents/Russian people are like this; rather, our perception of them is.

**Note 2: I cannot figure out why this character is name Rasia. I think the author had the name Raisa (which is a Russian name) in mind, but for some reason used Rasia (which, to my knowledge, is not a Russian name) instead.