This is one of the best love stories I've read in a long time. Instead of the cheap, saccharine sweetness that some books about relationships rely on, Vaclav and Lena are a couple of quirky, wounded souls, and they earn every bit of the happiness they manage to scrounge together.
As children, they are brought together through their shared Russian heritage, an ESL class, and a bit of happenstance. They spend their after-school hours at Vaclav's house planning and perfecting their magic act. Vaclav has wanted to be a magician ever since he first encountered Harry Houdini—an immigrant just like him, who amazed crowds with his tricks and illusions. Lena is not as enthusiastic about being a magician's assistant, but Vaclav is her only friend, and he's willing to help her with her homework, so she's game.
Lena is always quiet at school, presumably because she grew up speaking only Russian and is self-conscious about her English. Vaclav's mother Rasia suspects, however, that Lena is withdrawn for more serious reasons, and one shattering night her suspicions are horribly confirmed. Vaclav's parents and their hardscrabble immigrant lifestyle might not be perfect, but his childhood looks idyllic next to the squalid nightmare of Lena's.
I don't want to give much more background than that, because part of the joy of this book is watching how Vaclav and Lena's lives overlap and intersect through the years. Their unique way of understanding each other even as young children felt organic and genuine, not the least bit contrived. They're just connected, that's all, and Tanner makes this fact seem simultaneously simple and special.
Vaclav and Lena isn't only about romantic love. It's also about mothers, and Tanner has created one of the most endearing mother figures in recent memory. Rasia doesn't always understand her son, but this isn't the kind of book where the teenager and his mother are so at odds they can communicate only with apathetic shrugs and eyerolls. Refreshingly, Rasia makes an effort to be open and honest with Vaclav, and it actually kind of works. Sometimes it's nice to read about a functional, healthy parent-child relationship.
The tone of the story is just right—it doesn't shy away from the hard stuff of life, but it doesn't sit down and dwell in it either. My favorite books are those that acknowledge darkness by shining a light directly into it, and Vaclav and Lena does just that.