After reading quite a few glowing reviews of this debut novel, I decided I had to give it a shot.
The general synopsis is: two young immigrants from Russia who are in the same ESL class at school become, well, not ‘unlikely’ friends. More like inevitable friends, once they are thrown together on a play date and go to Coney Island together. Starting at the age of five, Lena becomes a fixture in Vaclav’s house, coming over every day after school and staying for dinner. She is living with her aunt, who is a stripper/prostitute and fails to take basic care of her. Rasia, Vaclav’s mother, takes Lena under wing and becomes her protector.
Then one day, just after Vaclav’s 10th birthday, Lena doesn’t come to school. Lena disappears entirely, actually, for seven years. In this time, Vaclav never forgets his friend and the magic show they had planned to perform together. He says goodnight to her every night without fail, hoping that it will keep her safe, wherever she is.
The two are reunited after seven years and it serves to help them delve into the time before they met, the time they were apart, and any future they might have together.
What I really loved about this book was the masterful use of language, in both the consistently misspoken voices of English language learners and the shades of meaning visible in the expository text. (The parents continued speaking broken English throughout while the children eventually improved to near-perfect fluency, and I have to say I was impressed by Tanner’s ability to manage each character’s language so deftly.) I thought the current interactions between Lena and Vaclav were a lot more interesting than pulling at the threads of parents she had never met, but the conclusion they led to was better than I expected. The last page surprised me by making me cry, and I would quote it here except that I’d hate to ruin it for the rest of you. Get there on your own; it’s well worth the trip.
The one thing I wish we had seen is a successful magic show performance with Vaclav the Magnificent and his lovely assistant, Lena. The first page begins with a young Vaclav giving his great introduction to the show, and they do an impromptu performance for his parents. But Lena disappears before the “real” show they plan for the boardwalk at Coney Island, and although Vaclav keeps studying and practicing the art of illusion, the only time we see him perform again is with his American girlfriend (who gets completely forgotten about as soon as Lena reappears). It would have been nice to bring it full circle, although it ended perfectly and I’m not sure it would have worked any time earlier in the book. I just felt like I was waiting for them to finally get their magic act together, and it never quite happened.
I’m not sure that the term “magical realism” quites applies here (though I have heard it used for this book), but I would argue that it succeeds in portraying the magic of living real life and finding true love. One of my favorite passages shows Vaclav’s mother, Rasia, comparing the magic that so captivates her son with her own, more pragmatic, definition:
Rasia started her homework crusade when Vaclav was very young, because she did not come from Russia, leaving behind her mother and her grandmother Lidia, who she would never see again in this world, so that her son could be a street beggar, which is all that this magician thing might become for all anyone knows. She keeps him doing homework, every day of his life so far, believing that this will ensure that he has this magical thing, education, which is the key to being successful in the new country. He will go to college, get degrees, and have this education knitted into his life so that he will be good and successful. (129)
At the same time, this book never shies away from its characters’ flaws and shortcomings, tempering the bad with an idealistic hope that true love really can conquer all. Recommended for anyone who is looking for a well-written page turner that will make you laugh, cry, and think.