I received Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. It was published in May of 2011.
About the Book:
Vaclav and Lena are kids growing up in Brooklyn. Vaclav lives with his parents and Lena lives with her aunt, all Russian emigres. Vaclav and Lena have been best friends for years. They attend the same school. They share a dream of performing a magic show together. Lena often comes over to Vaclav’s house, but never the other way around.
Then something happens, and their lives take different courses. What happens to two friends suddenly pushed in different directions? Vaclav and Lena explores one way the story might end.
There were things I really liked about Vaclav and Lena and things I did not. I’ll begin with the good.
The cover is absolutely lovely. The chapter titles were cute, and since the chapters were relatively short, there were plenty of titles to enjoy. I loved Vaclav’s mother, Rasia. At times, it seemed the novel was more about her than about the kids. I felt for her as she struggled to give Vaclav the best life possible, to be a cool American mom without neglecting her son. The moments that focused on her were touching. Tanner does seem to “get” kids and teens, and I thought she did a nice job incorporating that into her novel. Though I found the novel lacking (more on that in a moment), the end did redeem the book somewhat. It hit an emotional note and level of understanding I wish had been present throughout.
However, the writing seemed simplistic, juvenile, and detached to me. Nothing was inferred; everything was laid out in plain terms. The narrative style worked when Vaclav and Lena were kids, but it felt wrong for their older selves and for the adults in the story. It seemed like maybe the style was meant to mimic the experience of learning English, but if that were the case, it should have changed as the story progressed, which it did not. Instead, the effect was one of condescension toward the characters, many of whom felt stereotyped and flat. The novel got where it should have gone eventually, but reading it felt like meandering through 250 pages of build-up only to arrive pages before the end at a little pop of a conclusion.
I do think Haley Tanner has talent as an author. I can see glimmers of good shining through the mediocre story. Overall, though, I wasn’t especially impressed with Vaclav and Lena.
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