I am part of an online book club called Ethereal Readers (I will be talking more about this book club next week). Ethereal Readers recently read Willa Cather’s wonderful My Antonia, a novel about a nearly perfect friendship between a boy and a girl growing up in the Midwest.
One of my friends who is a member of Ethereal Readers loved the book, and subsequently insisted that I read Vaclav & Lena, a novel by Haley Tanner. She said it was another book about a perfect friendship between a boy and a girl, and compared it to My Antonia.
I liked the book very much, though I never would compare it to My Antonia, a book that I love and could (and will) read again and again. She was right in that Vaclav & Lena is a beautiful story about enduring love.
Vaclav and Lena are Russian immigrants living in the Brighton Beach area of New York City, where many Russian immigrants settled. The story is contemporary, and Vaclav’s parents came to the United States in the 80s when things were financially difficult for many Russians following the fall of Communism. Vaclav’s mother pushed for the family to move to the U.S. as she wants her son to have many opportunities. They are a relatively normal family, though the father is sort of a quietly unhappy man.
Lena knows nothing about her parents. She spent the first years of her life with a bitter old Russian woman who people believe is her grandmother, but who is not. When Lena is 4, the woman dies, and in her will, she names Lena’s aunt (her real mother’s sister) as her guardian. The aunt who takes care of Lena is a prostitute, drug addict, and doesn’t seem to have any real interest in Lena other than collecting the government subsidy for the girl. Lena has a tremendously sad childhood.
Vaclav and Lena meet at school and become friends. Vaclav dreams of becoming a famous magician with Lena being his “lovely assistant.” Vaclav’s mother understands that Lena has a tragic family life, and quietly watches out for her. A certain situation that transpires in the book results in Lena being removed from her home, and Vaclav and Lena don’t see each other again until they are nearly out of high school.
Their friendship endures, however. Vaclav’s love and loyalty to Lena are beautiful, and makes the tremendously sad story worthwhile reading. The ending has somewhat of a surprise twist that is almost, though not quite, happy.
I highly recommend the book. Vaclav is an extremely endearing character. Lena’s tragic life is mostly sad, but the people who love her so much and in so many different ways make the story compelling.
So back to the comparison to My Antonia. Cather’s book was uplifting throughout. Though Antonia’s life was difficult, she always found joy. I found the story of Lena to be so very sad. I’m glad I read the book, however. In a very unique way, the book ends mostly happy with some funny twists to the plot.
Vaclav & Lena would make a wonderful book club read. In fact, I would love any thoughts about the book from anyone who has read it.