Vaclav and Lena are five year old when they meet in the Russian immigrant community in Brooklyn. Worlds apart, friendship blossoms between the two until they are ten and inseparable.
Vaclav dreams of becoming a famous magician one day, with his faithful assistant, lovely Lena, by his side. Lena is afraid to dream. Parentless, she clings to the comfort of Vaclav and his family while trying to escape a barely-there aunt.
But one day things change and Vaclav and Lena are forced apart, without even having the chance to say goodbye. Years later they meet again, not even daring to hope that things can go back to the way they were.
Sometimes book summaries promise big things. Sometimes they claim that they’ll steal your heart and make you weep. More often than not, they let you down.
Vaclav and Lena was nothing like the description, but in the best way possible. It was touted as a romance, and the way it was presented, I expected a sappy melodrama, a rip-off of Romeo and Juliet (or the Romeo and Juliet people are most familiar with).
And while there is a love story in this novel, its so much more than that. This book is about heartbreak and family and loss and love, of all different kinds.
What I loved most about this book was the flavour to it. Tanner’s writing wasn’t always perfect, but her words did paint a picture for me. And that picture was a fresco of an immigrant community, struggling to thrive in America. Anyone who comes from an immigrant background, whatever generation you are, will find yourselves somewhere in this story.
While the title has Vaclav’s and Lena’s names in it, its not just about them. Its about Rasia, Vaclav’s mother, whose love for Vaclav goes deeper than the ocean she put between herself and her own mothers. Its about Lena’s aunt, a seemingly soul-less prostitute, who keeps Lena out of the house for reasons only she knows. Its about Lena’s adoptive mother, a woman who selflessly raises Lena, trying to make up for all the love she never had.
I had read some reviews on Goodreads about this book and how the descriptions of the Russian immigrant experience were done poorly. I obviously can’t agree or disagree with this, having no knowledge on the subject; but from someone who considers herself as part of a Diaspora, the struggles and hardship of the community felt real enough to me. It even reminded me of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation (completely separate from the movie), a memoir of Hoffmana’s own experiences in the Polish Diaspora in Toronto.
The ending was a bit abrupt. That’s not to say that it wasn’t happy, because it was, but after such a bitter-sweet story of love and loss, I was expecting something more. But the story just ended suddenly without the same finesse and grace shown earlier.
So for that: 3.5/5.
Thanks for reading.
‘Till next time,