The description of Haley Tanner’s debut novel, Vaclav & Lena, which I came across a few months before the book was published in May, made it sound like a moving, charming, magical read. So, I added it to my (very long) want-to-read list right away and recently borrowed it (after waiting several weeks for it to become available) from the local library. I was excited to lose myself in this tale of two Russian émigrés in Brooklyn, the love and secrets they shared as children, their dreams of a Coney Island magic show, and what would happen when reality disrupted their slightly fantastical plans.

Unfortunately, though Vaclav & Lena may have proved a moving, charming, magical read for many others, it didn’t do so for me. While there are some adorable and some very poignant scenes in the book, I found it surprisingly shallow and uneven. Vaclav and Lena are both somewhat interesting characters, but I did not feel like I got to know them very well. While their love for each other—especially Vaclav’s love for Lena—is stated frequently, there is never much said about what they love about each other, as well as little about their relationship beyond their mutual interest in magic.  This shared fascination is cute, but Haley Tanner does not follow through on it well. She goes into excruciating detail early on in the novel about Vaclav’s dreams of being a famous magician and Lena being his “lovely assistant,” then fails to tie it together with the end of the novel. I would have preferred that she spend more time on Vaclav and Lena’s relationship beyond the magic act, especially if that would have meant a deeper exploration of the characters’ time apart and how it affected their feelings toward each other.

I am no expert on the Russian immigrant experience in the late 20th century, but some readers who did not enjoy Vaclav & Lena have commented that Tanner’s tale of such an experience is full of both stereotypes and anachronisms. From the little I do know about Russian communities like Brighton Beach, I would say that this is probably a fair assessment. The little effort that is made to move beyond the negative stereotypes of Russian immigrants is too late and too much of a deus ex machina to be at all believable. It also seemed to me that Tanner could not decide whether the novel took place in the early 2000s or around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union—another issue that at least one negative review I read pointed out. Thanks to all these factors, the setting of the novel ends up an ahistorical place that seems only vaguely inspired by the Russian community in Brooklyn, rather than a realistic portrayal of the neighborhood.

My biggest gripes with Vaclav & Lena, however, are the tone and the author’s apparent inability to decide what her novel is really about. The whimsical tone and the use of present-tense language are fine when the protagonists are wide-eyed children taking in Coney Island and dreaming of stardom on the boardwalk; at these points, the novel is indeed as charming as I’d hoped it would be. However, the whimsy of Tanner’s writing becomes cloying and disconcerting as the material becomes more serious. More irritating, though, is how the novel abruptly becomes more about Lena’s past and her desire to find out about her parents than it does about her relationship with Vaclav. The love story that is supposedly the core of the novel is not tied in well with Lena’s quest for the truth, resulting in somewhat messy storytelling that failed to engage me once I was through the first third or so of the novel.

I realize that I may be one of only a few people who came away less than impressed with Vaclav & Lena. I have to admit, it made me a little sad to write this review, as I had very much wanted to like this book after looking forward to it for quite some time. I probably expected too much from this novel after hearing what it was about and how good it was. I suppose one could say that I’m being too fussy now, but I like to be honest when I assess anything I have read, and the truth is that Vaclav & Lena was a disappointment. The magic of the novel’s beginning simply got used up way too fast.

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