scentofpineThe Scent of Pine reminded me of the stories of Sana Krasikov, who has been discussed  on this blog. Lara Vapnyar’s characters have had their formative experiences in Russia but now they are living somewhere else. The tenuous homeland thread that connects old acquaintances, while frayed, refuses to break.

Lena is waiting in New York’s Penn Station for the train that will take her to Saratoga Springs for a distinguished interdisciplinary conference called “The Aesthetics of Oppression”. Lena tells herself that the conference will be good for her modest academic career. She’s an adjunct at a community college, teaching film history.  She was probably only invited because another speaker cancelled.

Her husband, Vadim, is taking their two young sons to San Diego for a separate vacation while Mom fulfills her professional duties. Her family is leaving from Boston which is their homebase. That’s just as well. It seems the more unmediated time Vadim and Lena spend together, the more they fight.

Lena has an hour before her train so she decides to browse through the first floor of Macy’s which is on the next block.

At a perfume counter, Lena spies a woman across from her, Pasternak-like, whose posture and body language look familiar. It turns out to be Inka, her best friend from when they were both summer camp counselors back in Russia 20 years ago.

Inka and Lena shared responsibility for the same unit of children within the camp. You know how it is when you are thrown together with someone. You can become friends out of necessity. But the close contact can be bruising as you face pointblank intimacy with someone you barely know.

The encounter of the old friends is rapturous. Inka reminds Lena that she had a “secret admirer” at the camp. But Inka has always refused to tell Lena who had admired her. You’re left wondering about Inka’s motives.

The two old friends exchange email addresses. But you get the feeling they will never get in touch. Maybe now that their common work experience in the summer camp is long over, Lena and Inka are free to react to what they disliked about each other.

Lena’s conference turns out to be punishing. She’s due to deliver a lecture on sex education in Russia, drawn from her experiences at the summer camp decades ago.

One of her most important duties was keeping boys hands above their blankets so the councilors could see that they weren’t masturbating. The head counselor, Yanina, had asked Lena first thing: “Are you aware of the dangers of masturbation?”

Lena waits in her assigned conference room but she’s stiffed when no one shows up for her talk. Lena is not a social butterfly. She he spends most of the rest of the conference trying to find people to relate to. For the first time in a while, she feels like a stranger in America.

Lena has made one good contact…in the hotel swimming pool…a man named Ben, who teaches the history of graphic novels at Rutgers. It’s hit or miss as Lena tries to reconnect with Ben at meetings and receptions.

Ben will be heading up to his old family cabin in Maine. As meetings are winding down, he offers to drop off Lena in Boston. It’s better for Lena than another dispiriting trip home alone, south to New York City and then recoiling back up north to New England, so she accepts the ride.

From what we know of Lena, who seems somewhat reticent, we are mildly surprised that she accepts the transport offer. That’s the story veering in an unexpected direction. But The Scent of Pine lurches into a fresh track even more.

Ben and Lena have been getting along well, telling each other their stories in the car. Just before they reach the cutoff point to deliver Lena to her empty nest in Boston, she asks if she can go with Ben to the cabin. He agrees.

Ben is engaged in a double-betrayal. By inviting Lena to the family cabin he is betraying his mistress with whom he seems to be drifting into a de facto marriage, as well as betraying his wife who has, of course, already been betrayed.

In the car, their cells beep, notifying them that they are moving out of range of a signal. Asphalt gives way to winding gravel roads amid thickening pines which seem to be heading straight for you until the road swings in another direction.

At the remote lakeside cabin, among the cold and fog, Lena continues to tell Ben about the summer camp in that other, Russian, forest so long ago. The more you hear about the camp, the more mysterious it becomes.

A cast of long forgotten characters emerges like ghosts out of the fog: lost boyfriends, children carrying their demons around with them, bullies and victims, dances at poolside and…aliens.

It’s the time of early space exploration and some children are afraid of being abducted. Several failed attempts are reported, Apparently aliens are repelled by high-pitched noises and several children claim to have saved themselves with shrill singing. In this context, scary nighttime camp stories, including a bizarre tale that Lena has invented and retells to Ben, seem to fit right in.

As Lena tries to decipher the motives of lost friends, her life one summer in a kids’ camp morphs into a rebus that seems to have the potential to explain her entire life.

There’s a singular remoteness to Maine woods and it supports a singular intimacy. Lena and Ben, in bed in the cold together, draw sketches of each others’ private parts which they exchange. It’s a scene that will knock you off your chair unless you’re dead already. At the end of the parallel plotting, the stories of the Russian woods and the Maine woods are brought together.

Lara Vapnyar is a novelist of rare, methodical virtue. Events to come are carefully prepared for and prefigured. Modest, winning characters drift through the messes that they have made of their lives, trying to salvage something, some real intimacy, that can enable them to recover their dignity. The Scent of Pine is intelligent, clever (not the same thing) and surprising. I was given a galley by Simon & Schuster at my request. It will be published on January 7th, 2014.