Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Disappearing act.

Man. I enjoyed the hell out of Haley Tanner's first novel, Vaclav and Lena. It floats along like a lovely little soap bubble, and Tanner's ebullient language and cheeky humor flash brightly against the book's darker subtext.

Vaclav and Lena is set in a neighborhood of Russian immigrants in New York, where ten-year-old Vaclav and nine-and-11-months-old Lena spend their afternoons practicing Vaclav's magic tricks. Vaclav, with the single-minded seriousness so possible at ten, wants to be the next Harry Houdini, and his great ambitions are to 1) have a show at Coney Island and 2) have Lena be his lovely assistant and eventually his wife.

These plans are complicated by Vaclav's devoted but domineering mother, the formidable Rasia, whose spotty English is hilariously made up of bits and pieces from cop shows on television, and by the mercurial Lena.

Vaclav and Lena are both "stinky lunch kids," in the ESL class at their elementary school, but precocious Vaclav has an easier time with schoolwork, while manipulative Lena is realizing that Vaclav's friendship is probably pulling a Red October on any chance of her being popular.

This may sound like a premise for a YA novel, but Tanner quickly pulls the plot into something darker. Lena is an orphan who has been passed from her grandmother to her aunt, a bleached-blond baba who lives in a filthy apartment littered with Lucite heels and drug paraphernalia. Rasia has stepped in as a surrogate mother for Lena, but is pulled between concern for Lena and her desire to shield Vaclav from the reality of Lena's life, until Rasia is finally forced to make a choice that will help Lena, but cost Vaclav his only friend.
Vaclav and Lena really shines in the dialog between the characters, which is alternately wrenching and hilarious, spiced with a generous amount of cross-cultural miscommunication (such as when Rasia tries to have The Talk with her son, which is agony in any language). Although Vaclav grows up into a thoroughly Americanized teen, his relationship with Raisa doesn't lose any its sweetness.

Tanner is a deft enough writer to know when to cut the preciousness. Although Vaclav is pretty unfailingly adorable, Lena is crafty and sneaky as a child, and (justifiably) angry as a teen. Vaclav and Lena flounders a bit towards the end, with an abrupt ending and a less-than-believable encounter with Lena's putrid aunt. However, Tanner's engaging use of language and feel for sharp little details - a bootleg DVD here, a frozen block of borscht there - makes Vaclav and Lena a bright little novel.

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