Lara Vapnyar’s The Scent of Pine is a lyrical short novel (perhaps partly autobiographical) about the awakening of sex and love in a perestroika-era Russian children’s camp, an awakening which has repercussions later in the United States. The main character Lena, like her creator, came to the U.S. as a young married woman, but the more important parallel can be found in Lena’s youthful experience as a camp counselor for the pre-teen children. The writing is lovely, which is amazing since Vapnyar came to this country without knowing the language, yet decided to write all her novels in English. But what hits the reader particularly are the surprises at the book’s end.
The opening description of the pines is ominous:
It was never quiet in the woods at night. There would be a creepy rustle in the grass, or a branch would snap here or there, and that unceasing choir of cicadas. The smell was creepy too. It ought to have been some kind of romantic smell, something like pine sap heated by the sun during the day. There were plenty of pines, and it was summer with a lot of warm, bright days, so couldn’t it have smelled nice at night? But it didn’t. The smell was moldy and damp and a little putrid.
Not only is this the place where she meets and holds hands with Danya, but it is where Danya later disappears—the third of Lena’s dates to do so.
Lest we forget the sexual theme, the very next sentences refer to “Hands over the blankets,” which was the motto to prevent children from masturbating under the covers. Another theme is happiness, and Lena, who has lived in the U.S. for thirteen years, is not happy with her marriage or the country:
For her happiness was more like peace, contentedness, feeling you were in the right place. She’d never had that with Vadim. Even when they first got married, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that they weren’t right for each other. She did feel affection for him, and she was moved by the very fact that he was so familiar, that they’d known each other so many years. She would pass him as he sat at his desk and inhale his smell—she always imagined that he smelled like freshly sawed wood—and her eyes would fill with tears, because this was the most familiar smell in the world for her. She never felt peaceful or contented around him, though. She kept telling herself that happiness was a luxury.
Her unhappiness is similar to Ben’s with his fiancée, whom he has known for a long time. Lena meets Ben at a conference, has sex with him, and begins to fall in love. On a road trip to his Maine cabin she becomes Scheherazade: “If only she could learn some of Scheherazade’s storytelling magic and make it last.” Lena’s camp roommate and fellow counselor Inka:
said that The Canterbury Tales were about telling stories with the purpose of suppressing time, killing it so the journey seemed faster. And The Arabian Nights were about telling stories to stretch time, to make it stop so that you don’t die. It’s over as soon as your last story is over. But as long as the story continues, it’s never over.
Lena tells tales from the camp days, especially about a boy, Sasha, who is forever throwing up but is also very artistic. Though she did not become close to the children or even to Inka, Lena does eventually care about Sasha.
This is a book with several themes: the awakening of sexual awareness in Lena, when she was a camp counselor at the age of eighteen, and also in her charges. It is a story of love and sex again when she meets Ben. It also examines the theme of happiness—its anticipation, its inevitability, its impossibility. But the novel, rather than being an immigrant’s story, is about the echoes of the past in the present, the similarities between her life at the camp and her observations in the present, at the conference and with Ben. This is a story about storytelling as she remembers and tells of the camp during the road trip with Ben, just as she used to tell stories to the children when she was eighteen. The movement between past and present takes at most a page break, but it’s smooth because similarities bring the past to realization in the present.
This is not a titillating book, though at every turn of the story, sex is mentioned—in terms of sexual experience (or lack thereof) or as new awareness of feeling. More importantly, through it all Lena performs her Scheherazade role well as she confronts the twists and turns of her own life.