Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review: Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

I wasn't quite sure what to expect of a novel about a couple of Russian immigrant children in Brooklyn who want to be a magician and his assistant. But this book was so much more than that description implies!

Ten-year-old Vaclav and Lena are best friends, and determined that one day they will become Vaclav the Magnificent and his Beautiful Assistant Lena! They practice after school, even when that means Vaclav has to do Lena's homework so that they will have time, and even when Lena starts to make new friends at school and ignore Vaclav. But everything seems to be normal until one night when Vaclav's mother walked Lena home, and sees something horrible and calls the police. Vaclav never sees Lena again. She disappears, he doesn't know where. Until on her seventeenth birthday she calls him. And the past comes back to haunt them.

I was particularly struck by the language in the book. Vaclav's English is better than Lena's or his mothers, and the narration slightly echoes the overly-formal and stiff structure of a non-native speaker. But as Vaclav and Lena grow older and start to talk like Americans, the narration shifts with them, seamlessly, to echo their now smoother and more eloquent language.

The suspense about what had happened that made Vaclav's mother call social services to take Lena away was handled well, although I wasn't actually very surprised by the incident. I did like the backstory of her family history, which did have some surprises in it, and I loved Vaclav's handling of that. I also loved the echo of the bedtime story Vaclav's mother used to tell to Lena and how it paralleled their real story. Although the main characters are kids and then teens, it's not a young adult novel (although teens likely would enjoy it too), particularly due to the scenes from Vaclav's mother's point of view. This was a community I was not familiar with, which made it interesting, and I found it easy to read and a nice change of pace from my usual fare.

I bought this book at B&N.

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