The Scent of Pine

( 1 )

Overview

Throughout her acclaimed, award-winning career, novelist Lara Vapnyar has consistently impressed critics with her striking honesty, empathy, and humor—yet never before have Vapnyar’s talents been as perfectly matched or shone as brightly as in her captivating latest novel, The Scent of Pine.

Though Lena is only thirty-eight, she finds herself in the grip of a midlife crisis. She feels out of place in her adoptive country, her career has stalled, and her marriage has tumbled into...

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The Scent of Pine: A Novel

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Overview

Throughout her acclaimed, award-winning career, novelist Lara Vapnyar has consistently impressed critics with her striking honesty, empathy, and humor—yet never before have Vapnyar’s talents been as perfectly matched or shone as brightly as in her captivating latest novel, The Scent of Pine.

Though Lena is only thirty-eight, she finds herself in the grip of a midlife crisis. She feels out of place in her adoptive country, her career has stalled, and her marriage has tumbled into a spiral of apathy and distrust—it seems impossible she will ever find happiness again. But then she meets Ben, a failed artist turned reluctant academic, who is just as lost as she is. They strike up a precarious friendship and soon surprise themselves by embarking on an impulsive weekend adventure.

On the drive to Ben’s remote cabin in Maine, Lena begins to open up, for the first time in her life, about the tumultuous summer she spent as a counselor in a Soviet children’s camp twenty years earlier, when she was just discovering romance and her own sexuality. At a time when Russia itself was in turmoil, the once-placid world of the camp was growing equally unsettled, with unexplained disappearances and mysterious goings-on among the staff; Lena and her best friend are haunted by what they witnessed, or failed to witness, and by the fallout from those youthful relationships. It was a time of intense emotions, confusion, and passions, and ultimately very little turned out to be exactly as it seemed.

As Lena reveals to Ben secrets she has long kept hidden, the lovers begin to discover together not only the striking truths buried in her past, but also more immediate lessons about the urgency of this short, stolen time they have together.

A stirring, sexy, and breathtaking novel with an unforgettable twist, The Scent of Pine is both a poignant love story and a provocative tale of loneliness, longing, youthful romanticism, and the fickle nature of desire.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Jon Fasman
…[a] slight but enchanting novel…Ms. Vapnyar arouses in the reader genuine good wishes for her heroine. Lena's gloominess, her resigned unhappiness with her own apparently blessed life—husband, children, job, America—make the sexual and romantic awakening that unfolds that much more poignant.
The New York Times Book Review - Andrea Walker
…sly and seductive…The Scent of Pine shares many characteristics with Vapnyar's two story collections and her first novel: a buoyant wit, a sharp-edged Russian melancholy, a fascination with outsiders who long to be insiders and a blunt reckoning with the costs of that transition for those who achieve it. This slender but provocative novel advances those concerns, skillfully questioning the notion that age brings wisdom, at least in matters of the heart.
Publishers Weekly
09/16/2013
Vapnyar (Memoirs of a Muse) delivers an awkward mix of angst and absurdity in her sophomore novel. Lena, a morose adjunct professor of film studies, catches a train out of N.Y.C.’s Penn Station for Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she is scheduled to be a substitute speaker at an academic conference. Her husband, Vadim, and their children are spending the weekend visiting his parents. During the trip, Lena runs into an old friend, Inka, whom she knew in Russia, and who immigrated from there years before. The chance encounter brings back memories of time spent together as counselors at a camp in the Soviet Union during one haunting summer in the 1980s. At the conference, she meets and is drawn to Ben, a professor of graphic novels, and the two of them decide to travel home together. The rather bland pair begins a desultory affair, filling their travel time with Lena’s stories of the camp and comparisons of their past affairs and the disappointments of their present relationships. Vapnyar’s spare prose never brings Ben and Lena to life, but Lena’s reminiscences vividly render the anxieties of adolescence amid the waning days of the Soviet Union. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (Jan.)
Booklist
“Vapnyar gives us a modern Scheherazade, weaving literary allusions, sexual repression and awakening. . . into a darkly funny, lonely love story evoked by the landscapes of Russia and Maine. . . Readers of literary fiction will want to try this surprisingly quick read.”
New York Times bestselling author of The Lotus Eaters - Tatjana Soli
"Sharply observed, darkly humorous, and sexy, Vapnyar weaves her tale of mid-life crisis and coming-of-age like a modern-day, Russian Scheherazade."
author of The Mothers and Something Red - Jennifer Gilmore
"Lara Vapnyar has always written vividly and with a droll sense of humor about personal liberty. In The Scent of Pine Vapnyar takes that singular voice to a new level as she examines a singular character's release from her past and her consequential sexual liberation. The Scent of Pine is an important novel that questions-and miraculously answers--what it really means to be free."
The New York Times
“Enchanting…vivid and rich….Ms. Vapnyar has shown herself to be exquisitely sensitive to the shifting vagaries of emotion, particularly happiness…Each of [her character’s experiences] shimmers with possibility but also carries a creeping sense of dread, sort of like adolescent sexuality itself.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Sly and seductive...A buoyant wit, a sharp-edged Russian melancholy, a fascination with outsiders who long to be insiders...This [is a] slender but provocative novel.”
The Boston Globe
Vapnyar unspools a provocative thread of suspense while charting a compelling tale of cultural displacement and yearning....she writes with searing directness and immediacy, yet she seeds her prose with humor and vivid details...The Scent of Pine shows an impressive gift, not just of language, but of insight into the human condition.
Chicago Tribune
Vapnyar can, with a few descriptive strokes, summon images readers will feel keenly....[A] book of elegant writing and propulsive storytelling.
bustle.com
[A] well thought out, deeply realistic book...Vapnyar has created characters that readers will feel for and a story that will keep them guessing, but has done so with a sustained sense of realism that few novels ever achieve.
author of Shopping for a Better Country and April Fool's Day - Josip Novakovich
Like the title, promising beautiful sensations, the novel delivers a moody symphony. The characters' experience echoes Chekhov’s Lady with a Lapdog, and like Chekhov, Lara Vapnyar is an astute and loving psychologist, creating a wonderful soul-searching and sensual novel.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-06
In Vapnyar's (Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, 2008, etc.) latest novel, a simplicity of narrative--two strangers share their lives over a weekend together--belies the complexity of interwoven themes and ideas. As the book begins, Lena is a self-conscious, self-criticizing woman traveling to an academic conference she does not feel prepared for, being only a professor at a community college. The trip, though, is also a temporary escape from her miserable marriage and, thus, welcome. En route, she fixates on the summer she spent, many years ago, as a counselor for 8- to 10-year-olds at a summer camp in her native Soviet Russia. There, though an outsider by nature, Lena had a friend in her co-counselor, Inka. At camp, there was the prospect of romance, and sex, with the male soldiers who worked there. There was gossip and fantastic stories told not only by Lena and Inka, but by the children they tended. And there were mysteries, too. Small things that touched Lena personally, but didn't add up and never resolved. It's clear that, in some space of Lena's head, she has never left. At the conference, she meets Ben, a university professor who teaches courses on graphic novels. Because he is interested, and asks her directly, Lena begins to tell Ben stories from camp, stories she's never told before--walking through woods, corralling children, the heat wave and the mysteries that persist. Ben has his own strangely intense childhood stories and is equally unhappy in his relationship. Impulsively, they embark on a road trip together, sharing chapters of their lives along the way; both characters grow more vivid in the process, as if dusting each other off for new use. Vapnyar's writing style feels like Lena's camp--everything seems to be in plain sight, but one can sense deeper truths hiding below the surface. As Ben and Lena get close to uncovering some of these truths, their time together inevitably dwindles. Purely silly moments, the headiness of strangers connecting and the universal nature of summer camp lighten the mood. Slight in girth but not in depth.
Library Journal
10/01/2013
The core of this tale by Russian-born and New York City-based Vapnyar (Memoirs of a Muse) is Lena's experience during her time as a counselor in a Russian summer camp. Through flashbacks, she is portrayed as a breast-beating ugly duckling, despairing of ever evolving into a Leda. Years later, now living in America, Lena has not changed much despite time, marriage, and motherhood. At a conference, she winds up spending an impulsive weekend with Ben, a stranger who is also sexually and romantically stymied. As though telling a rip-off Shahrazad tale, Lena regales Ben with the story of her mysterious camp experience, every detail repeated with unrelenting precision, even though it took place decades earlier. VERDICT Plodding, without depth or sincerity, forced and robotic, Vapnyar's latest isn't for readers who enjoy feel-good stories.—Joyce Townsend, Pittsburg, CA
The Barnes & Noble Review

Since language is not nearly as portable as the other arts, displacement poses particular challenges for migrant writers. After abandoning the Soviet Union, Mikhail Baryshnikov barely missed a beat when he continued dancing in the West, nor did emigration to the United States prevent Mstislav Rostropovich from performing — transcendently — on the cello. However, Joseph Brodsky hit a few sour notes when he tried writing poetry in English rather than his native Russian.

Vladimir Nabokov offers the supreme example of a Russian master who managed to reinvent himself in luscious English prose. But during the past two decades, North American literature has been enriched by several other newcomers from the former Soviet Union, including David Bezmozgis, Keith Gessen, Michael Idov, Sana Krasikov, Ellen Litman, Irina Reyn, Maxim Shrayer, Gary Shteyngart, and Anya Ulinich. Shteyngart, the most celebrated of that cohort, was seven, an ideal age for acquiring a new language, when his family moved to New York. However, Lara Vapnyar was twenty-three in 1994 when, with scant English, she traded Moscow for Brooklyn. By 2003, she was able to publish a volume of stories, There Are Jews in My House, in her newly adopted language. It was followed by a novel, Memoirs of a Muse, in 2006 and another fiction collection, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, in 2008.

Like much of her earlier work, Vapnyar's second novel, The Scent of Pine, focuses on émigré life and its discontents. At thirty-eight, Lena, who left Russia thirteen years ago, considers herself a failure. Unhappily married to another immigrant, Vadim, she is an adjunct instructor at a community college in Boston. While Vadim takes their two children to visit family in California, she attends an academic conference in Saratoga Springs, New York. Vapnyar's wry wit is evident not only in the topic of the conference — "The Aesthetics of Oppression" — but also in the fact that no one shows up for Lena's scheduled presentation, on "Sex Education in the Former Soviet Union." However, she does strike up a conversation with a frustrated artist named Ben, who, at the conclusion of the conference, intends to drive up alone to spend a few days at his family cabin in Maine. He offers Lena a ride as far as Boston, and she accepts. Beyond the reach of Lena's husband and Ben's girlfriend, an immediate intimacy develops between the two strangers, who begin sharing candid details about themselves. Lena decides to accompany Ben as far as Maine, and The Scent of Pine consists of the stories that Lena and Ben tell each other throughout their journey north into the Pine Tree State.

The scent of New England pine is the petite madeleine that transports Lena back to her freshman year, when, to fulfill a requirement of the State Pedagogical University in Moscow, she worked as a counselor in a summer camp run by the Ministry of Defense. During much of the journey to Maine, Lena recounts to Ben her experiences in the camp, a pressure cooker for nubile adolescent passions. As part of her academic studies, Lena brought along copies of The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, and The Arabian Nights, frame narratives whose structure of stories-within-stories parallels Vapnyar's own novel. Lena notes that such works serve to cheat time: The Canterbury Tales because it was "about telling stories with the purpose of suppressing time, killing it so the journey seemed faster" and The Arabian Nights because it was "about telling stories to stretch time, to make it stop so that you don't die." During the few days they have with each other, Lena and Ben are desperate to manipulate time to fit the contours of their desires.

Lena envies the famous frame narrator in The Arabian Nights: "If only she could learn some of Scheherazade's storytelling magic and make it last." But of course she cannot. However, in the course of recounting her experiences tending little children and discovering her own sexuality at summer camp, she arrives at truths that had eluded her before. The stories that Ben tells about himself — his troubled relationship with his Romanian- born father, his failed marriage, his current loveless cohabitation with a lawyer who left her husband for him — are not nearly as interesting as Lena's memories of an eventful Russian summer.

An aficionado of graphic novels, Ben owns one that resolves a mystery that has been haunting Lena since she was relieved of duties at the camp. Though it lacks the verbal virtuosity of Nabokov, Vapnyar's novel, written in arch and understated English, needs no drawings to illustrate the painful loneliness of its characters. Though Vapnyar borrows the tools of Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer, her wistful and waggish account of disappointments in friendship, sex, and love is closer in spirit to Anton Chekhov, who, remaining in Russia, captured the universal melancholy of human mortality.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at University of Texas at San Antonio, where he has taught since 1976. His most recent book is Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005).

Reviewer: Steven G. Kellman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476712628
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 1,484,752
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Lara Vapnyar moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994. Knowing very little English, she quickly picked up the language and soon began writing in it. She is the author of two story collections, There are Jews in My House and Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, and a novel, Memoirs of a Muse. She lives in New York City with her family.
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Read an Excerpt

The Scent of Pine

ONE


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 a 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. In daytime they could detect distinct undertones of rotten cabbage that came from the so-called Cabbage Creek, a small stream leading from the kitchen to the woods, where the kitchen guys sometimes dumped leftover cabbage soup. But at night it just smelled of decay.

Lena kept looking at their hands, bluish-white in the moonlight. Her fingers looked so thin and transparent in his. His were sturdy and warm. Yet, it was he who disappeared. Danya.

Or sometimes the story would come to her like this:

“Masturbation is very bad for boys,” Yanina Ivanovna had instructed the counselors, “bad and dangerous.” The head counselor went on listing the dangers: Memory loss. Impotence. Early death. Bad grades. She was a short beefy woman.

“Just tell them: ‘Hands over the blankets!’ ”

Lena couldn’t possibly tell the kids that. She would enter the boys’ bedroom, sit down on the edge of the windowsill, and begin a scary bedtime story in the most boring voice she could muster, developed specially for putting the kids to sleep. The room smelled like starched linen, toothpaste, and pee—some of the boys would hide their wet underpants under the mattresses. The boys in her unit were nine to eleven years old. They looked strangely alike in the soft light coming from the moon in the window and the yellow hall lamps. 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.

As most of the eyes closed to the sound of Lena’s voice, she would walk from bed to bed moving their sticky little hands to a decent position above the blanket.

Or at other times the story would start with her friend Inka:

Inka had light brown hair streaked with pink and blue, and the longest fingernails Lena had ever seen. They shared a tiny counselors’ bedroom that always smelled of Inka’s face cream, her nail polish, and her hairspray. Sometimes Inka composed poems in her sleep. She would wake up in the middle of the night and yank on Lena’s arm, “Lenka, listen! Listen, listen.”

“What?” she would groan.

“Listen to my poem:

“ ‘Take your bread and take your spoon.

You’ll be really healthy then.’ ”

“That’s your poem?” Lena would ask.

“Yeah, I guess it sounded much better in my sleep. I might have lost some lines.”

“Inka, that’s just the camp’s call for dinner:”

‘Take your bread and take your spoon

They will serve the dinner soon.’ ”

“Oh, shit . . .” Inka would say, and, giggling, they would go back to sleep.

Lena’s train to the conference was scheduled to depart from Penn Station at 5:40 P.M. on Wednesday. At 5:41 it started to move softly, gliding farther and farther through the tunnel. Lena stored her suitcase in the rack by the toilet and went to look for a good window seat, which wasn’t that difficult since the car was mostly empty. She picked one in the middle, sat down, and unbuttoned her coat. She needed to calm down, but it was impossible. Less than an hour ago, she had run into Inka, whom she hadn’t seen in almost ten years, ever since Lena and Vadim left Russia for the United States. People from the camp kept popping up here and there in the most unexpected places. Lena rarely traveled alone, but the last two times she had, she had bumped into one or another person from the camp. She wondered if anything similar ever happened to Vadim. He had never mentioned it. Sometimes Lena thought that it was she who made all these people materialize, because every time she found herself alone, she would think about the camp intensely and try 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. A ridiculous idea! It was nobody’s fault that she was unhappy.

“Ticket, ma’am!” Lena opened her eyes and handed her ticket to the conductor. The looming brownstones of Washington Heights were rushing past. How she hated to be called ma’am!

Lena put the ticket stub in her breast pocket, folded her arms behind her head, and closed her eyes.

Ten years ago, she had run into the head counselor, Yanina Ivanovna, in New York, exiting a Century 21 store with her Russian tour group. She clearly didn’t remember Lena, but she pretended to. And about five years ago in London, she saw one of the girls from her unit, Sveta Kozlova, at the Royal Albert Hall of all places. Lena remembered Sveta as a tall, pudgy nine-year-old; she would never have recognized her in this six-foot-two-inch beauty. But Sveta had run up to Lena and lifted her off the ground with her hug. Sveta said that she was married to one of the richest men in Russia, who was now exiled to London. She kept insisting they all have a drink after the concert, and that she had something amazing to show Lena, but Lena developed a bad headache and had to leave before the concert was over. She didn’t think she would enjoy the company of glamorous “new Russians” anyway, so she didn’t regret leaving.

And now Inka. Lena had lost touch with Inka after Lena and Vadim left Russia for the U.S. years ago, but in the last few years, news of Inka had been popping up here and there. Apparently, she had become a prominent human rights activist. Her name appeared in the New Yorker, her opinion in the New York Times, a glimpse of her on CNN, her deep, lulling voice on NPR. Who would have ever believed that Inka would become famous? And as a human rights activist? Lena was both jealous and proud. She had the urge to boast that Inka and she used to be friends, best friends, but there was nobody besides Vadim to boast to, and Vadim hated when she talked about her experiences at the camp.

And now she had seen Inka in New York. By pure chance. Friends gave Lena a lift to the city, where she was supposed to take a train to Saratoga Springs, and since she had an hour before her train, she decided to go to Macy’s. She was on the first floor smelling all those perfume sticks, getting nauseous from the stench, when she noticed a plump woman, with a long nose and messy blond hair standing at a counter nearby. The woman was wearing glasses, so it was hard to see her face, but something familiar about her carriage, about the way she moved her whole body rather than craning her neck when she tried to see something behind the counter, reminded Lena of Inka. “Inka!” she yelled, impulsively, and Inka turned, removed her glasses and squealed in delight. It turned out that Inka had come to the United States to give a series of lectures about Chechnya. When they hugged, it comforted Lena that Inka felt just as soft and pliable as she used to. They didn’t have very much time to catch up, though. Lena’s train was leaving in half an hour, and this was Inka’s last weekend in the U.S., so they just exchanged quick essential information. Lena was surprised to learn that Inka was about to end her third marriage and Inka was even more surprised that Lena was still married to Vadim. Awkwardly, as if to make up for it, Lena began to gush about her two sons, Misha and Borya, but Inka didn’t have much to add to that part of the conversation. She seemed happy to see Lena, but there was no real warmth. Inka kept fiddling with her phone, checking her messages, texting. Her long nails tapped against the keys with annoying speed. Lena asked if Inka stayed in touch with anybody else from the camp. Inka shook her head. She was too busy to keep in touch, but Sveta Kozlova had visited her recently in Moscow. “Remember Brunhilde, that fat monster? She is married to some tycoon and lives in London. We talked about how you had a secret admirer at the camp,” Inka said, winking at Lena wickedly, but insisted the story was too long to tell then. She promised to tell Lena more in an email. They exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, and swore that this time they would stay in touch for sure, though Lena didn’t think either of them really believed it.

Lena raised her arms above her head and stretched against the train seat. It was much more fun to think about Inka than about this stupid conference, which was making her nervous. She used to love train travel. The slight tremor in her knees, the vibration of the train, used to give her that bubbly feeling that something exciting was in store for her. These days though, premonitions like that only brought on panic. This morning, as she was boarding the bus to New York, she felt only a momentary sensation of escape, followed by exhaustion and disappointment.

She was annoyed with Inka. Her condescending “Oh!” when Lena said that she worked at a community college, her tapping fingers, but most of all her surprise that Lena was still married to Vadim. Lena used to be proud of their longevity, but recently the thought that she might stay with him forever filled her with dread. The feeling was especially intense on vacations and weekends, when they were thrown together for long stretches of time, with few distractions except their two boys, until everything—every single little thing that one of them said or did—annoyed the other to the point of violence. “Those are piling up, aren’t they?” Vadim said to her last weekend, gesturing to the rather tall pile of magazines on her nightstand. He asked her to put them away. She didn’t. He walked up to her nightstand and pulled a magazine from the bottom of the pile so that all the other magazines fell to the floor. She grabbed one of them and threw it at him. She hit him on the shoulder. It wasn’t that bad, but the fact that she could even think of physically hurting him was sickening. Still, Inka couldn’t have possibly guessed that she’d gotten to that point. So what right did Inka have to be so surprised? But then Lena was pretty sure Inka had never liked her husband.

Lena checked her watch: Vadim and the kids must be still at the airport waiting for their flight to San Diego. She dialed the number. Misha and Borya sounded very excited, as did Vadim—apparently he let them try all those crazy massage chairs at Brookstone. Did she catch a little bit of glee in his description of how much fun they were having without her or was she just being paranoid? She felt a pang of guilt for not going with them. But they were happy, they were fine, and she was just going to a conference, which was supposed to advance her career. Why then did it feel as if she was running away?

The conductor announced the Tarrytown stop and the train came to a halt. An old woman with a gleaming leather suitcase climbed in, waddled to her seat, asked a young man to hoist the suitcase up, sat down, thanked the young man, and immediately started a lively conversation with him. Lena felt pathetic for sitting there talking to herself. She looked in her bag. It held a book, an apple, and her paper for the conference. She took out the paper, but the thought of reading it made her nervous. The conference was a big multidisciplinary event, “The Aesthetics of Oppression.” A lot of big names. Historians. Writers. Architects. Even a composer who had written an opera based on the Kinsey Reports. Lena’s talk, titled “Sex Education in the Former Soviet Union,” had been added at the last moment, apparently after somebody else had canceled. Secretly, Lena was worried that neither she—a mere adjunct at a community college—nor her work was important enough. Vadim’s reaction when she got the invitation only fed her doubts. He suggested that she had to have been a replacement. “You don’t seriously believe that they’d want you?” he said. He claimed he was only providing perspective, protecting her from disappointment. And he did believe that he was acting in her best interest, she knew that. It was just that in this uncertain period in her life, when she felt like such a failure, the last thing she needed was sober perspective. The format of the talk seemed especially frightening. She would have to sit onstage with a moderator and answer her questions. Lena would have preferred a panel, so that other panelists could share the burden. Nervously, she reached into her bag for the apple but realized that she didn’t want it.

In the restaurant car she bought a cup of tea and sat by a huge window with a view of the Hudson. The weak tepid tea matched the dullness of the landscape. Her mind kept returning to her encounter with Inka. Had Inka looked at her with compassion?

The first time Lena had met Inka, they were standing in the crowd of students waiting for the train at a station in the southeast tip of Moscow. They were all freshmen from the State Pedagogical University—on their way to the summer camp, where they would have to complete their six-week-long pedagogical practice.

Other girls stood in pairs, or in groups of three or four. Lena stood alone, thinking how for the whole nine months at the university she had failed to make a single friend. She ended up spending every recess in the bathroom, going in and out of the stalls, washing her hands until they stank of school soap, endlessly fixing her hair in front of the mirror, studying her wary face in the background of chipped tiles, blue stalls, and other girls going in and out, chatting with one another. Lena had accepted the fact that she had been unpopular in school—all that history of baking mud pies in the corner while other kids chased each other in kindergarten, or hiding behind a tree to read a book on school camping trips, or standing by the wall all alone at school dances, which could be a result of baking mud pies as a child, and hiding behind the trees as a teen. She was hoping to reverse that in college, to become, if not popular, then at least likable. Her plan had been to approach people with a smile, listen to conversations with interest, and join whatever activities they offered. None of that worked. The other students seemed to have a similar plan, but they were better and quicker at it. They formed groups of friends in a matter of days, or hours, and there was no place for Lena. Lena felt particularly excluded, because her entering college coincided with the most exciting period in all Soviet history, perestroika. It was hugely exhilarating. New things that had been previously taboo, new activities, new life. All of that created enormous pressure to be a part of something important, to be enthusiastic, energized, and active.

There was only one other person at the train stop who stood alone the way Lena did. A tall, chubby girl who was peering into a book that she held very high, very close to her face. Lena remembered that she had seen this girl in the lecture halls, and in the cafeteria, and sometimes by the window in the lobby. She was always alone and always with a book.

When the train pulled close to the stop, the tall girl shut her book and walked up to Lena and introduced herself as Inka. “Your name’s Lena, right?” Lena nodded. They took seats together.

As the train passed through the ugly industrial outskirts of Moscow, Inka admitted to Lena that she hated their school and hated the idea of being a teacher. She confessed she had picked this program because it was reasonably easy to get into, and she really wanted to get out of her hometown and live in Moscow. And Lena told her that she ended up in State Pedagogical—her safety school—because she failed the auditions in the four acting schools to which she’d applied. “Acting?” Inka asked. “But you’re so shy.” Lena explained that acting allowed people to become somebody they were not, even if only for a brief time. She wouldn’t be shy on stage. She said that she wanted to be an actress because she really wanted to live many lives instead of just one. She wanted to see what it was like to murder somebody, or to be murdered, what it was like to be at war, to live in the nineteenth century, to lose a loved one, but she didn’t want the experience to affect the rest of her life. As she spoke, Lena was scared that Inka would laugh at her, but Inka didn’t laugh. Instead, seeing how embarrassed Lena was, she confessed that she composed poems in her sleep. Lena felt a kind of affection blossoming, not because the other girl wrote poems, but because she’d been willing to reveal it to Lena to ease her embarrassment.

Inka had light brown hair streaked with pink and blue. She dressed differently from other girls in their school too—most of the clothes that she wore were imported and obviously expensive, but they seemed to be bought at random, so they didn’t match, and some of them didn’t even fit. On the train Inka said that she’d come to Moscow from a small town and was under the impression that Muscovites existed on a different frequency, which she couldn’t tune in to. That was her excuse for why she couldn’t make friends. Lena couldn’t respond, having been born and raised in Moscow. If she couldn’t make friends, it was only because she sucked at making friends, or simply because she sucked.

As the train got farther from Moscow, Inka asked Lena if she had a boyfriend. Lena shook her head. “Me neither,” Inka said, explaining that she had gone out with plenty of boys, but there hadn’t been anybody to really spark her interest.

Lena was terrified that the next question would be whether she had had sex, so she decided to change the subject.

“What have you got there?” she asked, pointing at the box with books Inka was holding in her lap. Inka opened the top of the crate and showed her.

The Satiricon, The Golden Ass, The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights, and Excerpts from the Bible with the long introduction meant to prove how wrong and silly the Bible was, written by somebody who had a Ph.D. in scientific atheism.

All the books were from the summer list for their Foreign Literature Part 1 class. Lena laughed—she had the same books in her backpack. Plus, she had several issues of Art of Cinema magazine, with the screenplay of Last Tango in Paris in the last one. “Ooh! That’s the one where he—never mind—I’ll have to borrow that!” Inka said.

About two hours into the trip, when the train was passing some bleak countryside, with lopsided barns and skinny cows stuck in mud, they unwrapped and ate omelet sandwiches that Lena’s mother had made for her, and little meat pies that Inka’s mother had baked at home and brought to Moscow on a train, in a big aluminum pot wrapped in a woolen shawl.

Inka said that her mother was only thirty-four years old. She got pregnant with Inka while still in high school and had to marry Inka’s father. Her father was a smart, mean man who had once been an artist but was now just a common drunk. Her mother was a hairdresser and very pretty. Her biggest fear was that Inka would get pregnant and have to get married young too. Inka had to promise her mother that whatever happened she wouldn’t get married before she was twenty-three.

“Why twenty-three?” Lena asked.

Inka didn’t know. She sighed and cleaned a spot on the window with her sleeve. She said that her biggest wish was to escape the pattern. She said that it was the scariest thing—falling into a pattern and knowing what was going to happen to you.

Lena’s parents had gotten divorced when she turned sixteen. The official version was that her mother threw her father out. At first her mother was euphoric, energized, proud of her resolve. She was brimming with plans for her new independent life, but in a month or two she started to fall apart. What horrified Lena the most was her mother’s staggering insecurity. She acquired this strange new expression, this sideways questioning look, as if she suspected that people were laughing at her. But if she told a joke, it was the other way around; she was terrified that people wouldn’t laugh, and she smiled with such gratitude when they did. And even those stupid omelet sandwiches that she’d been proudly making for years: Now she would push the omelet from the pan onto the cutting board and freeze with the knife suspended in her fingers: “Do you even like them? Are they even good? Lena, please tell me the truth, do you like my omelet sandwiches?” Lena couldn’t stand her like that. She couldn’t bear to talk to her, to look at her. She tried to hide from her mother’s unhappiness as if it were an infectious disease. She loathed herself for that, but she couldn’t help it. Her father, on the other hand, seemed to be okay. “I feel as if I were learning to breathe anew,” he’d whispered when Lena saw him last. He rented a tiny room in a shoddy, crowded, roach-infested apartment, but he didn’t seem to mind. He began to wear a look of cautious happiness, as if he’d discovered a treasure and was afraid that someone would take it away. Lena couldn’t bear to see him happy, when she knew how much the divorce pained her mother. She couldn’t bring herself to visit him after that. She cried at night, both hating and missing him.

Lena looked at Inka’s solemn profile, which didn’t go with the mess of pink and blue in her hair, and wondered if she could understand. She looked like she could.

About an hour away from the camp, the scenery changed dramatically. Woods gradually supplanted fields and meadows, and the closer we got to the camp, the denser the woods became. Inka and Lena stopped talking and looked out the window. At one point they thought they saw a moose. The girls in the seat behind them giggled in delight.

“Was it a moose?” one of them asked.

“I think so, I saw a few last year,” another said, launching into stories about her superfun experience at the camp the year before. Fresh air, sunbathing, good food, plenty of free time. Not only that, but the camp belonged to the Ministry of Defense, so many, many guys worked there. Officers. Soldiers drafted into the Soviet Army from college. Some were even seriously smart. She gushed about discothèques under a starry sky, the riverbank where you could take romantic walks, and the touchingly beautiful clearings in the woods where the grass was tall and silky-soft under your back.

Inka and Lena exchanged glances and smiled. Inka said that she had thought she’d fall in love when she started college. “It’s been eight months—and nothing. Eight months!” Her face tensed with panic. Lena knew exactly how she felt. She told Inka that she had been playing the “boyfriend game” for several years herself. Every time she was about to reach a certain milestone—turn fifteen, sixteen, enter high school, college—she thought, “Now!” And nothing happened. Every time she was going to someplace new—on vacation, on a long train trip, to a party, to a museum—she thought, “There!” And nothing. She would meet a boy from time to time, and he would ask her out, and she would feel a surge of excitement, but the excitement would evaporate pretty soon—usually before the date ended.

In three hours, when they finally got off the train, their knees were trembling and their butts hurt from all the riding. They felt queasy and lightheaded, but they were immediately taken in by the beauty. It was very quiet and unusually cold for July. Everything had the air of spring. The woods, the pines, the squishy soil under their feet, the unbelievably loud singing of birds. Inka shivered in her light shirt and laughed. Lena laughed too. They wanted to run, to squeal, to jump. On the way to the camp headquarters, they passed a group of soldiers sawing branches off a huge fallen pine. One of them waved. They waved back. Lena was overcome with the strange feeling that she experienced only a couple of times after that. She didn’t know what to call it. Anticipation of happiness? No, it had to be stronger than that. Certainty of happiness.

Inevitability of happiness.

The train arrived at Saratoga Springs at a quarter to ten. There were no taxis at the station. The thin crowd that got off the train with Lena petered out within minutes. Some people walked to cars that had been waiting for them with their lights on, others disappeared along the semidark streets leading to the town. And now Lena stood all alone facing the dark parking lot with the empty, brightly lit station behind her. She walked back into the station and asked the woman at the ticket booth for the number of the car service. The woman gave her the number but said that the hotel was only fifteen minutes away by foot. “Twenty—max,” she added before dropping her glazed stare back to her Stephen King novel.

It was slightly colder here than it had been in Boston. Streetlights and windows of the closed shops shone brightly, brighter than necessary, Lena thought. She would see her shadow against the wall of one or another strange house. The shadow would be larger than life, and sometimes if the light was especially bright, the shadow would be so large that she saw the contours of her head looming on somebody’s roof. There were no people around. No movement—not even wind. And no sounds, except for the pleasant rapping of her heels against the pavement. She would hear an occasional car honk up on the main street, too far in the distance to sound real. There was nothing specifically American about this place. A town like this could be anywhere. Western Europe. Eastern Europe. Russia. Lena had a fleeting thought that her summer camp memories had actually transported her to Russia.

It took her thirty minutes to get to the hotel, and by the time they gave her the keys, it was ten fifty-five. She went up to her room and dialed Vadim’s number. He said that he was okay as were the kids. He asked if she was okay. She said that she was. They didn’t know what else to say to each other. Lena plopped down onto the bed, feeling tired and heavy, as if the bed was pressing down on her and not vice versa.

Impossibility of happiness was what she felt now.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 7, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting!

    My review:

    When Simon & Schuster offered me a review copy of The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar, I was intrigued. Partially because the author is originally from my neighbouring country Russia and partially because of the blurb of the book. The plot seemed promising.

    The Scent of Pine tells a story about Lena who is closing 40 and she has reached a point in her life when she needs to let go some parts of her past and to take a retrospective journey. Her marriage is a mess, she has difficulties with settling in at her new country and her work life is dissatisfying as well.

    During a conference she meets Ben, an artist gone academic. There is an immediate attraction between Ben and Lena and when Lena is offered to take a ride back to Boston with Ben, they end up at Ben's cabin. The more time they spend with each other, the more secrets are being revealed. Lena opened up and discovers herself through Ben.

    If you are looking for a book filled with wild romance and action, you will be disappointed. It's not that kind of book. It's definitely about passion and love, yes! It's also a story about intimacy. But mostly about sexual liberation and letting go of the past. It's a story about two people discovering themselves through each other. And even though the spacing is slow, it's beautiful!

    The story flows like a river. The pacing is in my opinion slow, but interesting. It seems like the time stops while the intimacy of relationships are folded out in front of the reader. Of course, since I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, I might be able to relate to many things what Lena is sharing with Ben. But that's not the most important reason why I liked the book. I savoured the writing style, it was humorous and little bittersweet. Lara Vapnyar is a sharp storyteller leaving lot of thoughts in between the lines. I loved that there was space for my own thoughts while reading.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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