This week’s big debut could not be more suited to teen readers. In Haley Tanner’s novel, Vaclav & Lena are both the children of Russian immigrants struggling to assimilate.
Yes, Vaclav & Lena are both 9 for part one of the novel. But they are such interesting 9-year-olds, and readers will be caught up in their Brighton Beach neighborhood, the idiosyncrasies of Vaclav’s parents, their trials at school, and the mystery of Lena’s somewhat odd behavior. Besides, what’s not to love about a boy who is sure that his magic show will be the hit of the Coney Island boardwalk? Dedicated does not begin to describe his work ethic.
Part one ends with a cliffhanger–Lena disappears from Vaclav’s life with no explanation. In parts two and three they are teenagers. The bond that was so clear and natural between them as children puts the reader on the edge of their seat, wishing they could be together. But even if they can, will Lena be too damaged? What happened the night she disappeared?
What begins as rather light-hearted becomes something deeper. I have never read anything quite like it, and weeks later the story and especially the characters have stuck with me. This is not a cookie-cutter coming-of-age story. Here’s hoping Vaclav and Lena find their audience!
Adult/High School–Tanner’s touching debut novel is a love story in three parts. In “Together,” Vaclav and Lena are best friends, both nine years old and living in Brighton Beach, NY. They are working on a magic show that Vaclav cannot wait to perform on the Coney Island boardwalk, with Lena as his lovely assistant. He lives with his parents, who left everything behind in Russia, and is particularly close to his mother, Raisa, who struggles with the new culture and language. Lena lives nearby with her neglectful aunt who works as a dancer in a club. She knows nothing about her parents. Just as their magic show is ready for public performance, Lena disappears from Vaclav’s life. Raisa checks on her and sees something so horrible that she has to call the police to take Lena away from her aunt’s home. Vaclav is heart-broken and blames Raisa’s ignorance. All she knows about America she learned from Law & Order! He never forgets Lena, saying good night to her every night, as if to keep her safe. Part two, “Apart,” jumps forward eight years. Vaclav and Lena are 17 and living separate lives. Suspense revolves around the mystery of why Lena was sent away, the whereabouts of her parents, and whether Vaclav and Lena will reunite. Tanner’s precise prose mirrors an immigrant’s attempts at a new language. At the beginning it is rather stilted and careful; later it becomes more and more fluid. This is a story for and about teenagers. The characters’ struggles are not over-dramatized, and despite a too-abrupt ending, readers will be enthralled.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City