Review: Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner

★★★☆☆

This was… not at all the book I was expecting it to be. (Hint: It was better.) I figured, when I saw the cover and the blurb, that I was going to be reading a cutesy, easy romance book about two teenagers. And part of it was (sort of) like that, but only the second half.

vaclav and lenaVaclav and Lena is basically split into two halves: the beginning focuses on Vaclav and Lena’s friendship when they’re young (age 10 and 9, respectively), and ultimately what tears them apart. The two are both Russian immigrants living in NYC. Both are outsiders, who find somewhat of a shelter in each other. The first half is super, super cute, because Vaclav is such a sweet little kid and he loves Lena with all his lil heart. The two spend every day after school together, doing homework and practicing magic, because all Vaclav wants is to grow up and be like Harry Houdini, with Lena as his “lovely assistant”.

Where Vaclav’s family is loud and loving, Lena’s life has been spent being passed from household to household, never really being loved or wanted. At the start of the story she is living with her aunt Ekaterina, who works as a stripper and doesn’t provide for Lena and is almost never home. When the popular girls at school accept Lena into their group, she clings to the feeling of belonging and begins distancing herself from Vaclav.

The book takes an omniscient approach to narration, switching back and forth between Vaclav, Lena, and Vaclav’s mother Rasia. Rasia was perhaps my favorite character in the book, because she was just louder the life and so full of personality. She was loyal and loved Vaclav immensely, as well as feeling a motherly protection for Lena. She walks Lena home most nights, tucking her in and telling her stories until she falls asleep in the empty house.

When Lena is sick one day, Rasia goes to check on her—and ends up seeing something that changes all of their lives forever. Lena is taken away, and then the story skips ahead to when Vaclav and Lena are both 17. From there we get to see the two reconnect and the pure love that binds them together.

The first half was sweet and innocent, and the second half felt gritty and real, while still harboring the childlike purity of the beginning. Overall this was an exceptionally written book that dealt with much darker subject matter than I was expecting—a beautiful portrayal of the healing power of unconditional love.

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