Vaclav and Lena tells of two Russian immigrants who meet as small children in Brighton Beach, New York. Vaclav moved with his parents, Oleg and Rasia, as a small child. Lena’s situation is more complicated. Her parents are absent, unknown figures. Lena lives with an aunt, Ekaterina, a cold, distant woman who clearly wishes her niece were elsewhere.
Lena and Vaclav meet at age five, when Rasia, through a mutual acquaintance of Ekaterina’s, arranges a play date for her friendless son. Lena is tiny, silent, and malnourished. Despite living most of her life in the United States, she speaks little English and understands even less. No matter, Vaclav’s fluency in Russian means they are fast friends, bound by their love of magic. The pair hole up in Vaclav’s room, practicing tricks and making endless lists, which they seal with wax and save in special box. Their fondest wish is to perform on the Coney Island Boardwalk: Vaclav the Magician and his lovely assistant, Lena.
Rasia is horrified by Lena’s neglected state. The more Rasia learns, the more she takes over, feeding the child whenever possible, walking her home to the empty, filthy apartment she inhabits with the woman she calls “The Aunt”, who works nights as a stripper, leaving the child to fend for herself.
“Rasia tells Lena her bedtime story in Russian, even though at all other times Russian is strictly forbidden. Rasia does this for Lena, so she will not have to struggle to understand…” Rasia then cleans up Ekaterina’s apartment, which is filled with takeaway food cartons (but no food), drug paraphernalia, and cigarette butts. Later:
“Whenever Rasia would take Lena home to tuck her in at night, after Lena fell asleep, Rasia would check her backpack and see the homework Vaclav was doing for her, the toilet paper she was stealing from the house… she wanted to help, so she used the backpack as a shopping list.”
That is, she used whatever Lena had squirreled away in the backpack as information, stocking Lena’s meager living space with toilet paper, toothpaste, bread. But nothing is enough to protect this vulnerable girl, and one night Rasia witnesses something that changes everything, causing Lena to abruptly disappear. Vaclav’s childish mind can only comprehend that Lena, his beloved friend and assistant, has vanished, and her disappearance is Rasia’s fault.
Tanner writes in third person, in the fractured language of a Russian coming to English as a second language. In a lesser writer’s hands, this tactic would be profoundly annoying, but Tanner ably utilizes the narrative to illuminate her characters. Rasia’s English is serviceable if imperfect, yet she insists the family speak only English so Vaclav can master the language. A bright, easygoing child, he soon does. Oleg is largely mute, a minimal presence interested in Russian television shows and vodka. Initially he seems a brute, but Tanner uses briefly illuminating moments to rapidly dispel the reader’s initial dislike.
Tanner’s characterization skills are especially evident in Rasia, Ekaterina, and Oleg. Rasia is the consummate Russian Jewish mother, working endlessly, holding down an office job, then coming home to cook, clean, and care for Vaclav, Lena, and Oleg. Yet Rasia is no mindless drone; she misses nothing. Her dearest wish is that Vaclav find happiness in this new, strange America. She mourns the change in Oleg, once a handsome, outgoing charmer. We learn that Ekaterina, the Aunt, who appears a monster, has a terrible story of her own, meriting not only sympathy but grief. Even poor Oleg, who trained in Russia as an architect, is unable to become licensed in the States, working instead as a taxi driver.
If Tanner falls down anywhere, it’s in her rendition of Vaclav, who is almost too good to be true. His thinking changes little from childhood to age 17: he is kind, gentle, and loves his mother even when furious with her. He is far too sensitive to rebel. Improbably tall and handsome, Vaclav is a brilliant student of physics who has never stopped thinking about the little girl who vanished nine years ago. Each night before bed, he wishes Lena good night, aloud, a superstitious incantation that has hardened into ritual.
I found myself protesting. Today’s teenaged boys are bound up in the shiny distractions of the present moment. What American teenager would think nightly of a long-departed childhood friend? Then again, Vaclav and Lena is a novel, not a template for the exacting specifications of book reviewers.
Lena is far and away the book’s most complex character, the axis which everyone else spins round. After Rasia’s discovery and Lena’s subsequent disappearance from Brighton Beach, the novel jumps forward nine years. Lena is a fragmented if outwardly successful 17-year-old. Adopted by a single woman, Emily, she has been carefully nurtured and schooled, moving from a life of poverty to a home filled with flowers, art and organic food. Despite her love for Em, her academic and social successes, Lena remains troubled by her past. A long scene features the girl cowering in a school bathroom in a state of high anxiety and dissociation reminiscent of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil.
It’s impossible to read Vaclav and Lena without thinking of Tanner herself, who lost her husband, Gavin Snow, to cancer earlier this year. (Sorry, postmoderns, I don’t divorce the writer from the writing.) Snow was 31 years old, Tanner, 28. The story is here, “Arc of Life and Love, Unbent by Treatment”, by Raymond McCrea Jones, I strongly suggest you do not read this in public, as it may make you cry.
If Vaclav and Lena doesn’t bowl you over with depth and complexity, it will win you over with the purity of its intent, its evocation of what for many readers is a foreign milieu, and its fervent belief in the possibility of happy endings. Haley Tanner has written a lovely debut well worth discovering.