This was such an incredibly sweet novel. I wasn't sure what I thought at first since the writing was a bit simplistic, but it worked very well for the story and the characters. I did wonder a few times if this was YA or "regular adult" fiction while reading it due to this, but it was very charming and didn't have an effect on my enjoyment of the novel. Vaclav and Lena are about 9 when the novel begins, and Russian immigrants. Well, maybe - Lena's past is a bit hazy so she doesn't know if she was born in Russia or the US but she has been in New York since she was a baby. Lena currently lives in a state of neglect with her aunt, and due to this, she struggles in school and with English. Vaclav, her best friend, dreams of being a magician with Lena as his assistant. The kids spend most of their time at Vaclav's, under Raisa's protective eye, planning illusions and shows.
Raisa knows that something is wrong with adults in Lena's life, but is not completely sure how to act. Instead, she turns a blind eye when Lena steals food, feeds her every day, and brings her home, making sure she is tucked in. Vaclav is an only child, and Raisa has basically made him the center of her life, but she also has a great deal of affection for Lena who is as close to a daughter as she has. The story and relationships portrayed are familiar - the children of immigrants growing up in America, the neglected child, the mother who lives for her family and especially her child, the immigrant whose credentials don't count in the States that works a more menial job and drinks a lot. Despite all these familiarities and types, the novel is able to stand on its own as a coming of age story, and feels fresh. It actually takes place in the modern day though the novel really felt like it could have been describing any immigrant family from various countries over the past decades. Personally, I enjoy "coming to America (or Britain as the case may be)" stories and reading about the struggles of adjusting to the new community, of parents growing distant from their children due to the very opportunities they wanted to give their children by picking up and leaving their countries, and about conflicting cultures and beliefs so I liked this one quite a bit.
The first part of the novel spans about a week with occasional forays into the past to explain Lena and Vaclav's friendship. Lena is acting differently, and avoiding Vaclav at school. At the end of the week, there is an incident that Vaclav doesn't completely understand that leads to the police taking Lena into custody and removing her from her aunt, and Vaclav's life. From there, the novel flashes forward to the day of Lena's 17th birthday which serves as a catalyst for Lena to return to Vaclav's life. This gives the reader a chance to see how Lena and Vaclav have developed, and the opportunity to find out what was occuring in Lena's home life that caused her abrupt departure. As I said before, it was a relatively sweet and simple story, so the reasons things occur won't be a huge surprise, but the characters were a pleasure to be with, and I especially enjoyed Vaclav's mother, Raisa, because I could definitely see someone like my grandmother in that role. I'd definitely recommend this since it was a pleasant story and a easy read for an escape from reality.