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Vaclav & Lena [Paperback]

Haley Tanner
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 7 2012
Set in New York's Russian émigré community, Vaclav & Lena is a timeless love story from a stunningly gifted young novelist.

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?


From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Description

Review

“In this charming and wonderfully engaging tale, the reader is swept into the beautifully rendered landscape of the immigrant childhood experience. Haley Tanner has created a world peopled with characters of great poignancy and they will linger in the mind––and heart––long after the book is put down.”
—Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge

“There are books you enjoy, and then there are books you live in. Haley Tanner plunges you into the Russian émigré community in Brooklyn, where two souls connect under a maternal watchful eye. Tanner’s assured narrative voice finds new ways to describe emotion and character, stunning the reader again and again with small shocks of awareness. This book is sad, funny, true and shot through with grace.”
—Judy Blundell, National Book Award–winning author of What I Saw and How I Lied

Vaclav & Lena is a wonderful achievement, generous, playful, moving and refreshing. It was the voice that first captivated me here, a voice that allows Haley Tanner to say anything at all, and to say it truly. Give this novel a few short pages, and I guarantee you’ll want to read it to the end.”
—Kevin Brockmeier, author of The View from the Seventh Layer and The Brief History of the Dead

“A terrific, enlightened debut.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

HALEY TANNER was born in 1982 in New York. She holds an MFA from The New School and a BA from Clark University. She lives in Brooklyn. This is her first novel.


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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible Book! Jan. 4 2012
By Penny
Format:Hardcover
I am told that this is Tanner's first book. Well I'm sure we won't have to wait long to see another. This is one very talented author. I thought at first glance that this book was going to be juvenile in nature but, not so. The story will capture you, break your heart and then fill it back up again. Bravo Ms.Tanner!
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5.0 out of 5 stars A POIGNANT, UNFORGETTABLE DEBUT June 10 2011
By Gail Cooke TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Audio CD
Affecting, poignant, unforgettable all describe Haley Tanner's wonderful debut novel VACLAV & LENA. One would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who would not be touched by her story, especially when read by two such talented actors as Kirby Heyborne and Rebecca Lowman.

A gifted and versatile performer Heyborne has received acclaim for not only his acting but his music (four solo albums) and his comedy. Lowman brings a wealth of stage, film and television experience to her narration. An inimitable pairing for this narration! Listen as they introduce us to Vaclav and Lena who first meet as children when they're enrolled in an English as a Second Language class in Brooklyn. Both are six-year-old Russian immigrants.

Drawn to one another they begin to play a game. He is to be a magician; she will be his assistant. Every day after school they practice their act; they grow closer and make promises. For instance, when they perform on the boardwalk at Coney Island they'll be billed as Vaclav the Magnificent and his assistant, the Lovely Lena. Another vow is that they will be together forever.

Vaclav's mother, Rasia, is sympathetic toward Lena who has no family but lives in an apartment with an aunt. Rasia walks Lena home every night after supper and is aware of the messy shabbiness of Lena's apartment as well as the unsavory way her aunt makes a living.

One day Lena does not show up for class. Rasia is stunned with what she finds when she goes to look for her and cannot bring herself to tell the frantic Vaclav the truth. Time passes until Vaclav is 17 and his phone rings - it is Lena. Yes, they are together again yet in Tanner's gifted hands there is more to come.

VACLAV & LENA is a love story that reminds us of the strength and redemptive power of love.

Highly recommended.

- Gail Cooke
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic new voice May 20 2011
By Luanne Ollivier #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Vaclav & Lena is the debut novel of Haley Tanner. And I must admit, it's probably one I wouldn't have noticed without a recommendation. So, Jess - thanks - because I really, really enjoyed it!

Vaclav & Lena is set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Both characters are Russian émigrés - children 10 and 9 years old. Vaclav has a fair grasp of the English language but is keen to master it. His mother Rasia is loving and kind, determined to make a better life for her son. Lena's life is much different - she has no support at the place she calls home, often has nothing to eat, does poorly in school and tries to blend into the woodwork in an effort to hide. Rasia does her best to mother her as well.

Vaclav and Lena share a love of magic and dream of the day when Vaclav will be a famous magician and Lena will be his stunning assistant. When Lena disappears from his life under never discussed circumstances, Vaclav is heartbroken. Until the day seven years later when their paths cross again....

Vaclav is such an earnest, eager, spirited child. He sees the positive in everything around him. He dreams of the future. The barriers placed in his way do not stop him or deter him. This character touched me so much and literally brought tears to my eyes.

"Rasia looks at Vaclav, holding these dollar bills, smiling his goofy smile. Most people do not really mean their smiles, most of the time. For most people, their smiles are a lie, a trick, or a promise. Vaclav's smile is just a smile, and he always means it."
Two years ago I worked in a very small library. Every day we were open, a young boy, his sister, mother and baby brother came in after school. They were recent immigrants from an Eastern bloc country.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  59 reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic debut May 20 2011
By Luanne Ollivier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Vaclav & Lena is set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Both characters are Russian émigrés - children 10 and 9 years old. Vaclav has a fair grasp of the English language but is keen to master it. His mother Rasia is loving and kind, determined to make a better life for her son. Lena's life is much different - she has no support at the place she calls home, often has nothing to eat, does poorly in school and tries to blend into the woodwork in an effort to hide. Rasia does her best to mother her as well.

Vaclav and Lena share a love of magic and dream of the day when Vaclav will be a famous magician and Lena will be his stunning assistant. When Lena disappears from his life under never discussed circumstances, Vaclav is heartbroken. Until the day seven years later when their paths cross again....

Vaclav is such an earnest, eager, spirited child. He sees the positive in everything around him. He dreams of the future. The barriers placed in his way do not stop him or deter him. This character touched me so much and literally brought tears to my eyes.

"Rasia looks at Vaclav, holding these dollar bills, smiling his goofy smile. Most people do not really mean their smiles, most of the time. For most people, their smiles are a lie, a trick, or a promise. Vaclav's smile is just a smile, and he always means it."

Two years ago I worked in a very small library. Every day we were open, a young boy, his sister, mother and baby brother came in after school. They were recent immigrants from an Eastern bloc country. The oldest boy had attended school in his home country, his language carried an accent and mangled syntax, he was awkward socially, but tried so hard to fit in. It broke my heart to see him rebuffed by the other children. I can only imagine what his mother felt. She and her husband had chosen to seek a better life for their children.

Rasia's love for Vaclav...

"As she watched him walk out into the big American crowd, under the big American roller coaster, she felt the world spinning wildly away from her, and she sat and cried because she was happy and sad that he did not look back, because of how much she loved his little body, and his awkward, cowlicky head and that tiny rib cage, and the way that he knew, already, to take a girl's hand if she was afraid."

Tanner has perfectly captured what I observed. The dialogue, feelings, emotions, situations and settings all evoke and capture the experience of a new citizen from a child's and parent's view.

But there is much more to the story - it is a tale of tenacity, love and hope. Vaclav & Lena is a rich, poignant narrative that will capture you from first page to last. Loved it! I look forward to reading what Tanner writes next.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Charming debut May 23 2011
By MurphysLaw58 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I am afraid to say that "Vaclav and Lena" is a coming-of-age story for fear that will turn people off, because this book is anything but cliché. Vaclav and Lena are Russian-Americans in modern-day New York. The story is told from the viewpoints of Vaclav, Lena and Vaclav's mother, Rasia, but mostly we live in Vaclav's world. At ten, he is a budding magician, and his life revolves around developing his magic show. Lena is his beautiful assistant, and they spend hours together planning and making lists. Rasia struggles to be a good "American" parent to Vaclav. They share the struggles that immigrants and first-generation American's face. Vaclav and Lena meet in ESL classes and sit with the other "smelly lunch" children. Vaclav's father revisits Russia every night on satellite TV.

I was charmed by young Vaclav and his dreams. I was charmed by his love for Lena and Rasia. I was charmed by his naiveté. I wanted to be Vaclav's friend.

The style of the book is spot on. Between the narrative and action, we listen to the characters think out loud, and Tanner's prose mimics the mental tug-of-war that we all experience. The tussle between what we believe and what is real. The seesaw of she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. The quandary between right and good.

As the minds of Vaclav, Lena and Rasia race to the conclusion, so does the reader. This is one of those books that grabs hold and doesn't let go. I sacrificed sleep to be able to finish it and was not disappointed. The book is not so much about uncovering secrets as finding out how everyone will respond when the secrets are out.

I am a sucker for a debut novel, and this is Tanner's first. It made me nostalgic for Irving's "Setting Free the Bears." Some people might have difficulty with the simplicity of the language or the first-generation English of the characters, but I think that was part of the appeal.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Poor research, bad cliches Sept. 8 2011
By SFreader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was kind of looking forward to reading this book after coming across a magazine review but ended up being less than impressed. The plot is fairly simple and very predictable. However, my much bigger issue is with the whole Russianness of the books.

With the two exceptions (Vaclav and the social worker, Anna), every Russian character is presented negatively in one way or the other, be it the physical ugliness or the moral one. Usually it's both. In fact, majority of the Russian characters are just plain sociopaths (the "grandmother", the actual grandmother, the two elderly neighbors - the list goes on and on). Everything that's Russian in the book (be it the appearance of a house, smell of food, the country itself) is ugly, disgusting, etc. A more balanced look would give more credibility to the author's knowledge of the subject.

Secondly, based on the way the author described life in Russia, I assumed that the story takes place in the middle of the last century, not the 1990s. And all these clichés... Prostitutes - check, alcoholic - check, tea drinking - check. Oy.

Finally, there are these seemingly minor comments and statements throughout the book that, as one who is probably more intimately familiar with the Russian immigrant community than the author, I just couldn't swallow:

- There is no way in hell you would find Wonder bread and peanut butter in a typical Russian immigrants' kitchen.

- In my 15+ years here I have yet to meet a family that would ban Russian language at home. Based on my personal experience, which among other things includes knowing several dozens Russian families in the US, it is quite the opposite. People go out of their way to preserve the native language and to make sure their kids can still speak it, as it is so easy to lose this battle once kids start going to school. As a side note - let's assume for a moment that a family would indeed ban the native language at home and be content with living a daily life of very primitive conversations in poor, broken English. Why would then Russian TV constantly be on, as it is in this book?

- I had to laugh at the statement of Vaclav's family ending up in Brooklyn by "luck". Had the author chosen, say, El Paso, TX, luck would have made some sense. Brooklyn houses a very prominent Russian community. It is almost shocking when new immigrants DON'T make it their first stop in the US.

That being said, I thought the author's ability to convey her characters' inner worlds was wonderful. There are many beautiful paragraphs that touched me, made me feel the characters' pain, anguish, pride, love... I will definitely check out her next book, hopefully its plot will match the characters' depth.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Awesome love story, but so much more than that - a must read for this year! May 17 2011
By Jamie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I received this book as an ARC through Shelf Awareness. I immediately wanted to read it, because it sounded like such a sweet story, but it goes a lot deeper than just a romance between two people. Vaclav and Lena were first forced together when they were young, neither one really having any friends. Their imperfect English held them back from fully connecting with the American kids they went to school with. However, when they were together, they knew that the other would accept them unconditionally. It was easy to how much Vaclav adored Lena and that he would do anything for her. It was obvious that Lena cared for Vaclav as well, but her shocking and appalling home life made her extremely introverted; it was as if she had a wall up, even around her best friend, Vaclav. I could sense that there was something darker going on in Lena's home life that wasn't coming to light at the beginning, something more awful than just being left to fend for herself all of the time. My heart broke when Lena disappeared from Vaclav's life. She was his world, his sun and she was simply ripped away from him. No goodbyes, no finality. Just left to wonder if he would ever see her again.

The first part of the book went between telling the story from Vaclav and Lena's perspectives. I liked that, as it was nice to get a glimpse into what both of them were going through (although like I said, Lena remained somewhat of a mystery). The middle of the book takes place 7 years later and it is split up into two parts: Lena's story and Vaclav's story. This gives a lot more insight into Lena's life, especially in the time when she was very young, before she even met Vaclav. I think the sweetest thing is that even after all of that time, Vaclav still said goodnight to Lena, every single night. He was afraid that if he stopped doing so something bad would happen to her. Even after all of the time they spent apart, she was still the last thing he thought about before he went to bed.

Each section of the book is split up into little chapters. I liked the cute, descriptive chapter names (you'll see what I mean when you read it!) and I loved how short the chapters were. They were each like little stories all in their own. The last part of the book reveals a lot of answers I had been waiting for the whole time and that is why I'm not going to go into too much more detail about the book.

I do want to share one of my favorite quotes from the book (however, keep in mind that I read the ARC, so things might be different in the finished copy):

"Vaclav had already known that she was sitting there before he even saw her. He had felt her looking at him, He had known it was her, had to be her, because he felt, suddenly, the compulsion to turn and look at that bench, to look in her direction, like there were magnets in his eyes and she was a supermagnetized hunk of some other planet, just fallen to earth."

This was a wonderful book, showing how love can withstand space and time. It also shows how childhood can shape a person, for better or worse. I definitely recommend giving this book a chance; it's a fairly quick read, especially since I couldn't put it down, and it was impossible not to feel for the characters and fall in love with them.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, but left me wanting a bit more June 2 2011
By Live2Cruise - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a heart-tugging tale about the complex, and enduring relationship between two Russian immigrants who meet when they are 5 years old. Vaclav, an aspiring magician, lives with his parents, and Lena, a tiny, skinny girl who is his "assistant," lives with "The Aunt," who neglects her terribly. Lena spends most of her time at Vaclav's house and over the years their friendship grows into a deep attachment. Then something happens that tears them apart.

This story is beautifully written, and the characters well-developed so that the reader can feel the longing between them when they are separated. It's a difficult book to put down, and easy to become invested in the story.

The letdown for me was in the lack of "payoff" of the story. After a great deal of slow, deliciously painful buildup, things seem to wrap up rather abruptly. Without giving away details, the ending felt too sudden-- as if it weren't supposed to happen yet, and I found myself turning the pages to look for more story only to be disappointed.

Overall, this was a moving read with endearing characters and beautiful writing, but the transition from slow build-up to sudden wrap-up seemed to cut its potential a bit short. Still, I certainly look forward to more from this clearly talented author. Three and a half stars.
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