Vaclav & Lena

Paperback | February 7, 2012

byHaley Tanner

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Set in New York's Russian émigré community, Vaclav & Lena is a timeless love story from a stunningly gifted young novelist.

Vaclav and Lena, both the children of Russian émigrés, are at the same time from radically different worlds. While Vaclav's burgeoning love of performing magic is indulged by hard-working parents pursuing the American dream, troubled orphan Lena is caught in a domestic situation no child should suffer through. Taken in as one of her own by Vaclav's big-hearted mother, Lena might finally be able to blossom; in the naive young magician's eyes, she is destined to be his "faithful assistant"...but after a horrific discovery, the two are ripped apart without even a goodbye. Years later, they meet again. But will their past once more conspire to keep them apart?


From the Hardcover edition.

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From the Publisher

Set in New York's Russian émigré community, Vaclav & Lena is a timeless love story from a stunningly gifted young novelist.Vaclav and Lena, both the children of Russian émigrés, are at the same time from radically different worlds. While Vaclav's burgeoning love of performing magic is indulged by hard-working parents pursuing the Ameri...

HALEY TANNER was born in 1982 in New York. She holds an MFA from The New School and a BA from Clark University. She lives in Brooklyn. This is her first novel.From the Hardcover edition.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 7.95 × 5.14 × 0.68 inPublished:February 7, 2012Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307399362

ISBN - 13:9780307399366

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Read from the Book

“Here, I practice, and you practice. Ahem. AH-em. I am Vaclav the Magnificent, with birthday on the sixth of May, the famous day for the generations to celebrate and rejoice, a day in the future years eclipsing Christmas and Hanukkah and Ram - adan and all pagan festivals, born in a land far, far, far, far, far, far, far distance from here, a land of ancient and magnificent secrets, a land of enchanted knowledge passed down from the ages and from the ancients, a land of illusion (Russia!), born there in Russia and reappearing here, in America, in New York, in Brooklyn (which is a Borough), near Coney Island, which is a famous place of magic in the great land of opportunity (which is, of course, America), where anyone can become anything, where a hobo today is tomorrow a businessman in a three-pieces-suit, and a businessman yesterday is later this afternoon a hobo, Vaclav the Magnificent, who shall, without no doubt, be ask to perform his mighty feats of enchantment for dukes and presidents and czars and ayatollahs, uniting them all in awestruck and dumbstrucks, and thus, one day in the future years, be heralding a new era (which is a piece of time) of peace on earth. Ladies and gentlemans, I give you, I present to you, I warn you in advance of his arrival, so that you may close your eyes or put your hands on your face if you are afraid, Vaclav the Magnificent, Boy- Magician.” “Eh,” Lena says in a grumbly voice. “Lena, what we are having here is perfect introduction to the act. It is long and perfect and made of only the best and longest thesaurus words,” says Vaclav. “After third sentence, say, ‘Magic is art of control events using supernatural powers,’ ” says Lena. This sentence is a favorite of Lena’s—she memorized it from The Magician’s Almanac, which is a big old black book with gold around the edges of the pages, all about magic and tricks and illusions. Vaclav kept checking the almanac out of the library, so last year for his birthday she put it in her backpack and took it home with her, so that she could give it to him for a birthday present, and it could be theirs forever. “That sounds good, but is not belonging in the act. I already told you. This is the introduction, complete. Seal it now with the magic birthday candle.” Vaclav folds the notebook paper on which the introduction to the act is written, and he holds it out to Lena. Lena does not take it from him. Lena holds the magic birthday candle in her left hand and rubs its spiraled ridges with her thumb. In her right hand, she holds the lighter with which she is to light the candle. The wax-dripping paper-sealing is an important part of anything Vaclav and Lena write, and it is Lena’s job, exclusively Lena’s, to light the magic birthday candle, to hold it high, and to then let the wax drip onto the folded paper, sealing it for all of time. Under Vaclav’s bed, next to a forgotten sock, among many gatherings of fuzzy, dusty things, is a shoe box full of pieces of notebook paper folded and sealed with Lena’s wax drips. The things written on them are important declarations, pacts, lists, and other artifacts of the lives of the young magicians. “We write and finish now, Lena, and tonight I will ask permission to have a show.” “Impossible,” Lena says. “Possible. I can make this happen. Maybe not tonight but soon. And so we seal the introduction, which means we can begin on the act. Once we have permission, we perform. Light. Melt. It is done.” “Unfold. Write. Magic is art of control events using supernatural powers.” “I will not, Lena, no. This is not part of the introduction of the act; this does not belong. It is very good English, but it does not belong. This is the introduction, which we must seal, so that it will be, and so that we begin work on practice the act.” Lena looks at the lighter she stole from the pocket of the Aunt’s robe. Lena knows it is not right to steal unless you need something really badly, and the person is not home, and won’t even realize the thing is missing. Stealing the lighter felt scary, and it felt good, and brave. Lena feels very brave with the lighter in her hand, very grown-up. “Why you are the boss always?” Lena asks. “For one thing, I am magician and you are assistant. Assistant is second to magician. There is no assistant without magician,” says Vaclav. “Without assistant, no magician,” says Lena. “I am one year older than you,” says Vaclav. “Ten is only little more than nine and eleven months,” says Lena. “Magician is more important than assistant, because . . .” says Vaclav, getting ready to say one more thing to prove that he should have authority over Lena. He wants to win this argument, even though he knows they will have this argument again. This fight is a fight they have over and over again. It is like the famous argument between the chicken and the egg, about which came first, and which one is more important and better than the other. This fight is never resolved, because it is impossible to prove which came first or which is better when actually both things are the same thing. There is a knock on the door. Lena and Vaclav look at the door with wide, terrified eyes. There are three loud knocks, and then the doorknob jiggles but does not open, because the door is locked. Vaclav is filled with regret. Locking the door was a terrible idea. A locked door indicates to Vaclav’s mother that something illicit may be happening in the bedroom of the young magician. “Vaclav! Open the door right now or I’ll open it for you! You wanndo this hard way or the easy way?” Lena and Vaclav shove their magic things under the bed, hide them behind the eyelet-perforated dust ruffles of the bed skirt. “Coming, coming!” says Vaclav, scrambling to his feet. As soon as Vaclav unlocks the door, it bursts open, pushing him backward. Rasia’s eyes search the room. Rasia doesn’t know what she is looking for, but all the time she is worried. Every day at tenpast- five she rushes home as fast as she can, because her son is growing and changing every second and she has only so many hours to mold him like clay. She has only so many hours to show him that it is important to do homework, to have dinner like a family, to not do drugs or to steal or to be a lazy person or a cheat. She must protect him from pedophiles, from strangers, from bullies, from guns, and from carbon monoxide poisoning. She is worried, because he comes home to an empty house after school; he is what they call the latch-key kid, and she is a working mother, and they live in an urban area, and Vaclav attends a crowded public school, and all these things are the ingredients of disaster, if you are listening to the news, which she is, carefully, vigilantly, always to see what next to be afraid of. “I do not like what I see here. What is going on here when I am not home?” “Nothing! We are doing nothing! Homework. We are doing nothing but homework,” Vaclav says. “Nothing and homework for three hours? This I do not believe. I want to see all homework after dinnertime.” Rasia backs away toward the door, keeping her eyes on Lena. She ’s worried about Lena because of the well-known occupation of the Aunt. This is unfair and also fair at the same time. “Okay, nothing and homework and, also, maybe a little practicing the magic act,” Vaclav says. Rasia steps back into the room. “Maybe a little practicing the magic act?” “Actually, yes, we are practicing the magic act,” Vaclav says, trying to look earnest. “Maybe, also, if it is okay with you, because all homework is done, maybe . . .” Vaclav looks up at his mother, and Rasia looks down at her son, at this dancing around what he wants, at his Velcro sneakers digging nervous little circles in the carpet. “Maybe what?” says Rasia. “Maybe, before we are eating dinner . . .” says Vaclav. “Say what you are saying,” says Rasia, narrowing her eyes. “Can Lena and I do for you a magic show, in the living room, before dinner?” Vaclav says, very fast, all in one breath. “All homework is done?” she asks. “Yes, all is done,” Vaclav says, even though his homework is only mostly done. “Lena, you are staying for dinner?” Rasia asks. “Da,” says Lena. “English!” says Rasia. “Ye-us,” says Lena, with a growl. “Before any magic is happening, homework must be done,” Rasia says. Vaclav smiles, because he knows that this is her way of saying yes. Rasia scowls at the room for one extra minute, just to eradicate any funny business that may or may not be happening, then, satisfied, she finally leaves the room, pulling the door almost shut behind her. As soon as she is gone, Vaclav and Lena jump up and down and squeal with excitement, and then start scrambling frantically to prepare their magnificent act.From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

“In this charming and wonderfully engaging tale, the reader is swept into the beautifully rendered landscape of the immigrant childhood experience. Haley Tanner has created a world peopled with characters of great poignancy and they will linger in the mind––and heart––long after the book is put down.”—Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge “There are books you enjoy, and then there are books you live in. Haley Tanner plunges you into the Russian émigré community in Brooklyn, where two souls connect under a maternal watchful eye. Tanner’s assured narrative voice finds new ways to describe emotion and character, stunning the reader again and again with small shocks of awareness. This book is sad, funny, true and shot through with grace.” —Judy Blundell, National Book Award–winning author of What I Saw and How I Lied“Vaclav & Lena is a wonderful achievement, generous, playful, moving and refreshing. It was the voice that first captivated me here, a voice that allows Haley Tanner to say anything at all, and to say it truly. Give this novel a few short pages, and I guarantee you’ll want to read it to the end.” —Kevin Brockmeier, author of The View from the Seventh Layer and The Brief History of the Dead“A terrific, enlightened debut.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)From the Hardcover edition.