WASHINGTON, September 17, 2011 – Vaclav and Lena, Haley Tanner’s debut novel, is the beautiful story of two Russian children and their American dreams. Tanner, who currently lives in Brooklyn, likely envisioned this story while experiencing that New York borough’s ethnic and neighborhood diversity first hand.
As for the book’s title characters, Tanner introduces her readers to two extraordinary children trying to find themselves in a new world very different from the ones their families left.
Both are the children of émigrés who’ve landed in Brooklyn. Vaclav lives with his hardworking parents, while Lena is under the care of a careless aunt. Clearly, the circumstances of both vary considerably. But, while Vaclav and Lena may not have memories of Mother Russia, they do share a common culture.
Vaclav, as well as his mother Rasia, both fall in love with Lena upon meeting her. As a result, Lena spends most of her days at Vaclav’s house. Vaclav’s surprisingly mature sensitivity toward Lena’s feelings—even as he aspires to become the next Harry Houdini—helps create a special relationship between this burgeoning magician and his inspirational assistant. As they grow closer, each seems to invest each other with their respective dreams.
That is, until Lena suddenly disappears from home and school, seemingly vanishing without a trace.
Vaclav, sensitive and mature beyond his years, manages to persevere and continues to grow up in Brooklyn’s tenements. Unbeknownst to either he or his mother, however, Lena’s circumstances have changed suddenly but for the better, at least in an economic sense. She was, in fact, whisked away from her neglectful aunt by child protective services, and is eventually adopted by a sensitive single woman who raises the girl in a wholly new environment of privilege and security.
But while Vaclav’s and Lena’s lives evolve very differently, the emotional connection is still strong. Distance and social class add considerable stress, but a novel isn’t a novel without setbacks and conflict. Ultimately, the magic of love between children carries them both through trial and separation, transforming their story into a modern fairy tale romance.
But Vaclav and Lena operates on a deeper level as well. It is also a story about the experience of emigration and social integration in a new country. There are problems, to be sure. But the underlying pulse of the novel is positive, subtly emphasizing the ease with which barriers can be overcome when one has an advocate. Yet at the same time, the author is realistic: it can indeed be tough to prevail in modern society without a little help from your friends.
And ultimately, friendship is what Vaclav and Lena is all about. The touching, deep, abiding friendship of both primary characters, their great loss, and the deep and abiding love that pushes aside despair is what makes Tanner’s two protagonists so compelling and their relationship so extraordinary.
It’s also a marvelous generosity of spirit that inspires both Vaclav and his mother to invest so much of their lives in Lena—and what makes Tanner’s novel an inspirational love story for readers of all ages.
Vaclav and Lena, by Haley Tanner. New York: Dial Press, 2011. 304 pp. (Dial, ISBN: 9781400069316)
Haley Tanner was born in 1982 in New York. She holds an MFA from The New School and a BA from Clark University. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn with her two dogs and her boyfriend. This is her first novel. Learn more at her website here.