2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35: Haley Tanner, Vaclav & Lena

November 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

The power of saying good night each night to Lena is great.  On the first night that Lena was gone, Vaclav said good night to her, put the good night out into the scary, lonely darkness, and meant each word in a very specific way.  Good night.  Good night.  He wanted her to have a good night.  Not a scary night.  Not a dangerous night.  Not a cold or lonely or nightmare-filled night.  He filled the words with all of his love and care and worry for Lena and launched them out to her, and like homing pigeons, he trusted them to find her, and he felt, that night, that his words would keep Lena safe, that if he thought about her and cared about her and showed this to the universe, then bad things would not happen to her.  Vaclav was not asking an omnipotent god to grant him a wish.  He was stirring in himself his own very true emotions, his pure feelings, and pushing them, birthing them into the universe, giving flight to a powerful energy that he trusted would do what as a child he was powerless to do.

Each night thereafter, he had carefully sent this good night into the universe for Lena, and each night after that, he had known if he did not take this precaution, that if he forgot or neglected or was insincere in his wish or in his mind or in his heart, that the good night might not come to Lena, and that would mean that Lena might have a bad night, and for Vaclav this meant that her life might be in danger. (pp. 144-145)

It is too easy when one reaches the advanced age of 38 to dismiss “true love.”  After all of the heat of lust and the fires of passions have cooled down somewhat and the ashes of relationships have begun to accumulate in your heart, it is hard to remember when each loving moment was new, much less that such moments felt “pure” and “wholesome” in and of themselves.  You may find yourself ready to scoff at such notions as a teenage “enduring love,” as if such a thing were more fanciful than a hippogriff.  But perhaps a part of you does recall the hope you may have harbored that if your own “true love” isn’t true nor love, that maybe there is another couple out there whose young love story will endure and make others around them smile.

Haley Tanner’s debut novel, Vaclav & Lena (2011), is a story about a love that endures a seven year-long separation undiminished by what has changed in the lives of the dual protagonists, the young Russian emigres, Vaclav and Lena.  Opening in the Brighton Beach community in Brooklyn sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the novel traces the relationship between the talkative and vivacious Vaclav and the reserved and painfully shy Lena from their beginnings as students in an ESL class to Lena’s sudden disappearance before their eventual reuniting seven years later.  There are four main sections to Vaclav & Lena:  their early years together as 9-10 year-olds; Vaclav’s post-Lena years; Lena’s post-Vaclav years; and their chance encounter that reunites them.  It is a simple yet effective structure that permits Tanner to show their burgeoning love while being able to withhold crucial plot information until it is needed at novel’s end.

Often, the characterizations in these youth romance novels can be thinner than Bible paper.  Yet neither Vaclav nor Lena possessing weakly-developed characters.  There is more to each than their professed love for one another; the actions of each, both together and later, when they are apart, show that theirs is not a mindless affection, but rather something different.  Tanner captures their very different personalities well in their individual sections. Vaclav’s is more outwardly-oriented, focusing more on his confused relationship with another teen girl, Ryan, while he still harbors hopes that he will one day re-encounter Lena and that the promise to her that he made when he was a magician-to-be and she his assistant would come to fruition.  Lena, on the other hand, is terser in tone, as befitting her reluctance to speak.  There is a shadow that looms larger and larger over her life pre-Vaclav as the novel progresses, as the event alluded to at the end of the first section, that of Lena’s sudden removal by Protective Services, becomes more sharply defined through her halting interactions with others.

This secret, which Vaclav eventually learns, is at once what gives the novel a gravitas that it otherwise would have lacked and something that might to some appear to be too awkwardly developed.  There certainly are a few hints here and there within the novel that indicate that Lena’s past, both in what happened to her and what was her mother’s fate, is very dark and which might also explain her desire for a certain sort of affection.  Yet Tanner’s integration of this event into the love plot is rough in places, as though the need to keep the main reveals (that of the mother’s life and why Lena was placed in Protective Services’ care) until the story’s end was greater than fitting these elements of Lena’s life into her current relationship with Vaclav.

This lack of a seamless integration is Vaclav & Lena‘s weakest element.  Otherwise, Tanner’s evocative prose, which is almost pitch-perfect in its rendering of adolescent love/lust, and well-developed characterizations of both Vaclav and Lena, would be outstanding.  As it stands, Vaclav & Lena is a flawed yet very promising debut novel which achieves most of Tanner’s ambitious goals.  I shall be curious to see what direction she takes in her upcoming second novel, as she certainly has the potential to be a very good writer for decades to come.

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