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Monday, April 23, 2012

Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner

Vaclav and Lena tells the true-to-life story of a pair of first-generation Russian Americans who were born at the time of the fall of the USSR. Vaclav ("You might think I'm Polish because of my name") meets Lena in ESL class, but a play date to Coney Island seals their destiny to be together. Their separation is wrenching, and I was unable to put the book down after that point.

It's a debut at once painfully funny and sadly beautiful. The pain comes from the way the narrator focuses in so close to each character, articulating each subtle emotion and thought with a sophistication level that is totally appropriate to the psychological development of each. The humor comes from the paradoxical distance the narrator keeps from these extreme closeups -- I'm not sure how she does it, but it's expert. The sadness evolves with the story as we learn more about the difficulties of immigrant experience and about Lena's circumstances in particular and the profound human connections and the sacrifices of true love  radiate a beauty seldom seen in twenty-first century literature.

Tanner has a great ear for foreign-inflected English, no doubt culled from her experience as an ESL teacher. The way she juxtaposes the macabre and the transcendent with the everyday floored me. This book is not to be missed.