By Sherry Evans, Head of Public Services
February 11, 2014
At a professional conference in Saratoga Springs (NY), The Aesthetics of Oppression, two academics meet. Instant attraction. Lena, of Russian descent, married and the mother of two, is miserable generally and especially after not a soul attended her presentation. Husband, Vadim, also Russian, has become distant; they have nothing to say to each other that does not involve the children. Does she still love him? Enter Ben, older and charming, divorced with a long-time girlfriend. Lena is thrilled to receive male attention; any attention. Ben is kind of bumbling along, possibly as lost in life as Lena.
The beauty of this short novel is in its honesty and pure story telling genius. A story within a story as throughout the novel Lena relays in fits and starts a life-changing summer she spent in Russia as a counselor at a children’s camp. There she is sexually awakened, pursued and rejected, and sees the seedier side of human nature.
The conference ends and impulsively the pair decide to drive to Ben’s remote, sparse cabin in Maine. In close proximity and propelled by Lena’s story, a comfortable intimacy is created quickly along with a dynamic sexual attraction. They also genuinely enjoy each other’s company and Lena has not felt this happy or free for many years.
The summer camp, located three hours from Moscow, although for children of wealthy Russians, is grimy, sparse, and bleak. And, at first, she is very frightened of the children:
“Still, the worst one was Sasha Simonov. Most of the time, he seemed to be pretty harmless, a scrawny, quiet kid who loved to draw. He usually sat peacefully in a corner somewhere with his notebook and crayons, until his inner demon took hold of him and he would start crying and sobbing, and eventually have a vomiting fit.”
Encouraged by Ben’s curiosity, Lena reveals details of that summer that she has never told anyone – the disappearances of three of her suitors, the soldier boys stationed at the camp, the torrid affair between camp administrators Yanina and Vedenej, the mosquitos, the sweat, the frog-invested pool, the heat wave that nearly killed them all. Overarching themes drive the narrative – coming-of-age, oppression, love, loneliness, sexual awakening, female friendship, poverty, children, art and literature. Camp horror stories abound, UFO’s are sighted, a coveted black sausage disappears and children run away.
The Scent of Pine could be taken as a sweet, delightful easy read at only 180 pages but do not be deceived. There is a kick at the end that connects all the camp intrigue that Lena has laid out for us. The past really can catch up with you!
As for Ben and Lena in present time….the week-end ends, they pack up and begin to drive home. Vapnyar is too clever a writer to tie up all the loose ends for us. As the car drives forward we know this story is not over.
Lara Vapnyar came to the United States from Russia in 1994 and started writing fiction in English in 2002. She is the author of the acclaimed novel Memoirs of a Muse and two collections of short stories. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harpers and the New Republic.
Her collection of stories, “There are Jews in My House,” was published (Pantheon Books) in 2003. “Memoirs of a Muse,” her first novel, was published in 2006, and a 2008 collection is called “Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love.” (Russia: Beyond the Headlines)