For many of us growing up, there comes a defining moment or pivotal period of time, often a summer, in which everything seems to change, pushing our noses squarely into the realization that the future is mined with both indescribable pleasure and devastating heartache. For 38-year-old Lena, a mother of two boys caught in a static marriage and an unrewarding career in New England, it was the summer she worked as a camp counselor in her native Russia during the perestroika era, an exhilarating time of new freedoms and heightened energy that only made the shy, awkward loner feel even more disenfranchised. However, the camp, part of a pedagogical requirement for college, became for Lena a powerful crucible of awakening and change, and Lara Vapnyar’s “The Scent of Pine” deftly evokes that crucial coming of age as well as the reawakening present-day Lena begins to experience while in a slump defined by a feeling of the “impossibility of happiness.”
Lena frequently finds her solitary hours haunted by that summer at camp, not only what happened to her internally, but what happened in the era’s upheaval to those around her, including the abrupt disappearances of some of the young Soviet soldiers who also worked at the camp, bringing sexual frisson to periodic dances. She tries “to piece the story together, as if hoping that solving the mystery of what happened twenty years ago would help her solve the mystery of her present unhappiness.”
On her way to an academic conference, Lena happens upon her old camp friend Inka, now a prominent human rights activist living in New York. The chance encounter plunges Lena into a morass of memories and reflections. Connecting with another conference attendee, the similarly awkward but gently sweet Ben, she slowly reveals for the first time her story of burgeoning sexuality and political awareness. Ben, also ensnared in a troubled romantic relationship, begins in turn to share details of his own life. As the two bond, they impulsively embark on a weekend getaway at Ben’s cabin in the Maine woods. There, amidst the quietude and “scent of pine,” shared stories of loss, longing, and loneliness provoke revelations, insights, and epiphanies. Ben realizes “practically every single thing that we do is either to distract ourselves from what is wrong with our lives, or to please somebody else, to shield ourselves from reproaches and guilt. And while doing that, we’re building a cocoon around ourselves, thicker and thicker, and we stay inside and suffer from loneliness.”
As “The Scent of Pine” deftly shifts between middle-age Lena and the young loner, Vapnyar unspools a provocative thread of suspense while charting a compelling tale of cultural displacement and yearning. When a detail in Lena’s past sparks a memory in Ben, he shows her a graphic novel he read some years earlier, a novel about a Russian summer camp that suggests some of the answers to the mysteries Lena has spent two decades pondering. It’s a bit contrived and far-fetched, tying up the loose ends of Lena’s camp mystery into a neat little package. It doesn’t seem imperative given the compelling nature of the present-day relationships, which Vapnyar leaves effectively ambiguous.
Throughout, she writes with searing directness and immediacy, yet she seeds her prose with humor and vivid details, especially smells. “The room smelled like starched linen, toothpaste, and pee,” Lena recalls of tucking in her young charges each night. “They looked strangely alike . . . Shorn hair, large ears, dark skinny necks against the heavy white pillows. Eyes closed. Eyes wide open. Eyes squinted in a giggle. Eyes clouded by tears. Hands moving under the blankets seeking out comfort and peace.” Vapnyar writes especially movingly about “being a stranger in America,” herself having emigrated from Russia in 1994 at the age of 22, knowing very little English. Though she only started writing in English about a decade ago, “The Scent of Pine” shows an impressive gift, not just of language, but of insight into the human condition.Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.