From the moment they meet, Vaclav and Lena make magic together.
They're the children of two Russian immigrant families living in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach neighborhood. Vaclav is clever, quick and eager to become American; Lena is anxious and shy. Vaclav learns magic tricks, and performs shows in their neighborhood; Lena stands by as his assistant. She cherishes his boldness; he treasures her sweetness. They imagine a life together — and then, one day, Lena disappears.
The story of Vaclav and Lena's love, loss and assimilation sits at the heart of Haley Tanner's debut novel, Vaclav & Lena.
Tanner tells NPR's Scott Simon that the main characters came to her like something out of Vaclav's beloved Magician's Almanac.
"I sat down to write for a class, and of course I was almost overdue on a deadline and it was midnight and I had a story due the next day," she says. "And these characters, Vaclav and Lena, just jumped up and started their magic act, and then I couldn't let them go."
Vaclav and Lena meet in an ESL class when they're 5 years old. Together, they learn to navigate their new American world, an experience Tanner says encapsulates Brooklyn, N.Y., and what it means to be American.
"This immigrant experience is not a moment on the way to becoming a full, assimilated American," she says; it's the experience of being an immigrant and the process of assimilation that is, in itself, uniquely American.
Those experiences play out daily in Vaclav and Lena's lives, from Vaclav's struggles with English to their first play date together at that ultimate symbol of Americana — Coney Island's Wonder Wheel.
Through all the twists and turns of the book, the most enduring theme of the novel is love. Tanner, whose husband died from metastatic melanoma just months before the book's release, says her inspiration for Vaclav and Lena's great love came from personal experience.
"I had love like this when I was writing the novel," she says. "This is my husband; my husband is on every single page of this book."