Ms. Vapnyar has shown herself to be exquisitely sensitive to the shifting vagaries of emotion, particularly happiness — its elusiveness, how it is often better anticipated or recalled than experienced, and the paradoxical way it seems more out of reach the closer it gets. Toward the beginning of this slight but enchanting novel, Lena, a professor of film studies at an unnamed East Coast university — like her creator, a Russian emigrant to the United States — recalls alighting from a train as a teenager and waving to a group of soldiers sawing branches off a pine. She was on her way to a stint as a camp counselor somewhere deep in the Russian woods. The soldiers waved back at her, and she 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.”
That inevitable happiness never arrives. Lena has a meaningful but miserable time at camp, and as an adult she is profoundly if numbly unhappy. Stuck in a loveless marriage with Vadim, with whom she came to America, she has two children and a thoroughly unremarkable academic career. The novel opens with her on a train to a conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she is to deliver a paper. After her presentation is canceled because nobody shows up, she ambles through the conference hallways. She catches a snippet of a talk titled “The Magic of Prison States,” which concerns “graphic novels set in oppressive societies” — a detail that, like many others in this work, at first seems inconsequential but eventually becomes important.
As it happens, Lena and Ben, the man giving the talk, swam next to each other in the hotel pool that morning. They meet and flirt at the conference reception — Ms. Vapnyar memorably and cringingly captures the awkward, jolting, giddy and hopeful pattern that small talk makes when two people are attracted to each other. The next day Ben offers to drive Lena home to Boston; instead, they take a detour to his cabin in Maine (Lena’s husband and children are conveniently out of town) and have a torrid, talky affair.
Lena’s thrill at rediscovering the erotic as she approaches middle age is one of this novel’s two stories of sexual awakening. The other concerns her camp counselor experiences in the last days of the Soviet Union, after her first year at college.
Lena tells Ben about those camp experiences piecemeal, Scheherazade-like, during the long drive to Maine and during pre- and post-coital hours in the cabin. She and another girl, Inka — now a famous human rights activist whom Lena encounters by chance the day before going to Saratoga Springs — had charge of young campers, the 9- to 11-year-olds. Anyone who has spent time in the former Soviet Union will recognize the noxious mix of neglect, deception and bureaucratic inanity on which the camp runs. The head counselor is a terrifying harridan whose chief concern is preventing the male students from masturbating, because it causes “memory loss. Impotence. Early death. Bad grades.” She says: “Just tell them: ‘Hands over the blankets!’ ” Everyone steals; everyone hatches schemes to avoid blame when things break or go missing.
Lena’s camp stories center on her efforts to shed her virginity, which result, alas, not in actually shedding her virginity. Instead three successive suitors disappear, including a soldier who entices Lena on a date by presenting her with a salami (this is not a euphemism — he gives her an actual Hungarian salami wrapped in newspaper) and then stands her up when he gets booted from the camp for stealing it.
Each of these stories shimmers with possibility but also carries a creeping sense of dread, sort of like adolescent sexuality itself. Sex — who does it and why, who wants to have it, what people know about it — suffuses Lena’s experiences at camp. These stories are vivid and rich, in contrast to her static, humdrum life in America, and they hint that the journey she made (and many other Lenas make) — from sexual insecurity to security — may not be worth the emotional cost.
Both her camp stories and the tale of her affair with Ben seem at times to meander, but Ms. Vapnyar plays a long game: She brings the two strands together at the end with a deft and unexpected but plausible twist. She makes Ben charming enough for a weekend affair but smug and dishonest enough that the reader will feel no great regret on Lena’s behalf if she chucks him.
“The Scent of Pine” lacks the sharpness of Ms. Vapnyar’s shorter works, and the attention she lavishes on Lena’s thoughts, feelings and observations leaves the other characters a bit undistinguished by contrast. Ultimately, however, this is Lena’s story, and 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.