Tag Archives: The Scent of Pine

Novelist from Russia Bridges Two Worlds

Book by Russian Novelist
Destination: Russia and Maine

Book: The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar

When I read books in translation, there is always the nagging doubt that the writer’s true intent has come through in the second-hand version. But Lara Vapnyar, a writer from Russia who lives in the United States and writes in English, handles her adopted language so adeptly that there is no need for translation.

Russia pine forest painting
Painting , Morning in a Pine Forest (1899) by Ivan Shishkin and
Konstantin Savitsky . From the Hermitage. In public domain.

Generally, at A Traveler’s Library, we read books that describe a particular country or region so vividly that the book makes us want to drop everything and go there.  But there is another way to “get inside the skin” of a country we want to know more about.  Read books by authors from that place, like Lara Vapnyar, novelist from Russia.

Maine pine forest
Wood canvas canoe on Munsungan Stream just above the falls, Maine. Photo by NIck Gallop

In The Scent of Pine: A Novel, we see both a cabin in the woods of Maine and summer camp in Russia,  in both cases the scenes focus on the people than the place. And for once, that’s okay with A Traveler’s Library.

Vapnyar tells us about the stages of her character’s adoption of life in America during thirteen years after coming from Russia.

Originally, she had imagined America as a land steeped in adventure, which filled her with panicky adoration.  Then there was the incomprehension and dejection which characterized her first months in America, when everything had seemed so strange and hostile: the scenery, the climate, the people.  Mostly the people.  Everybody seemed to participate in a complicated game based on very particular rules.  But eventually, she stopped looking at Americans as a unified mass. 

This is no doubt very personal, since the novelist had been in American 13 years when she wrote this.

While this section is setting up the dissatisfaction and loneliness that fuels the action of the novel, it strikes me as an accurate portrayal of anyone who tries to adapt to a new country, not just immigrants from Russia to the United States.  And that includes Americans who try living in a different land as several books about moving to Tuscany, Paris or Spain  have illustrated.

In The Scent of Pine, Lena goes to an academic conference and meets another academic, Ben.  She is married with two children. He is engaged to a long-time partner. But the two of them hook up, and Lena decides instead of going home to Boston, she’s going to go with Ben to his cabin in Maine for the weekend.  Along the way she tells him the story of her summer as a camp counselor in Russia.

Maine woods
Maine woods. Photo by Angi English

The Scent of Pine is a  novel about story-telling. Stories make time pass, but they also can elongate time.  Lena thinks

The story will be over sooner or later.  As will the story of Lena and Ben.  If only she could learn some of Scheherazade’s storytelling magic and make it last.

And as their weekend affair continues, we are kept in suspense by the present story of Lena and Ben, and the many complications in her story of summer camp. She weaves her story until, inevitably, past meets present in surprising ways.

Lest you think this story of two sad people will be a drag–Vapynar writes with a knowing wit that will have you chuckling in recognition of life’s foibles.

The thing that particularly struck me about the summer camp was not so much the cultural differences–well yes, American camps would probably not be next door to military camps and have the mixing of personnel–but the similarities. The teenage concern with clothes and music, the younger children’s homesickness and the bad food and boring activities. And the flying saucers.

Lara Vapnyar, it turns out, learned English from reading Romance novels and watching the movie Pretty Woman before moving on to more complex uses of the language. The makes it particularly striking that she presents this off-beat romance in such a lovably realistic way. The lovers are shy, bumbling, unsure and no one knows where their tryst is leading.

In my case, the novel leads to wanting to read more of Vapnyar’s books–particularly her debut There Are Jews in My House, a collection of short stories, and Memoirs of a Muse, which is described as a satiric coming-of-age novel.