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Reinterpreting the stories of life
on January 8, 2014
The Scent of Pine offers the reader a slice from a woman's life. Lena (an academic who teaches at a community college) might be too dreary for some readers, but the novel offers a valuable glance at her (dreary) life. Fortunately, the novel is brief and the dreariness is partially offset by Lena's lively stories about her job in a Soviet Union summer camp.
The novel takes place over the course of a few days as Lena tries to "solve the mystery of her present unhappiness." Twenty years earlier, when Lena was a student in the Soviet Union who just met her friend Inka, happiness seemed inevitable. Now, having lived with her husband Vadim in the United States for ten years, happiness seems impossible, particularly when she attends a conference to give a talk on Sex Education in Soviet Russia that nobody attends.
Lena meets Ben at the conference. Ben offers to drive Lena back to Boston and then to his leaky cabin in Maine. Along the way, Lena tells Ben (and thus the reader) the stories of her life. In the process, she explores the nature of happiness, questions why the men in her life (including Vadim) have never made her happy and, as she starts to see her stories from Ben's perspective, begins to reinterpret her past. In turn, Ben tells his stories to Lena. But all stories come to an end and, when a comfortable intimacy begins to connect them, Lena wonders about the ending of the story of Ben and Lena.
Late in the novel, Lena learns the truth (or at least a different perspective of truth) behind some of the stories she's been telling Ben about the Soviet camp. Lena is forced again to reinterpret her own stories while the reader learns how the stories connect to her present life. The connection is meant to be surprising and it probably is, but only because Laura Vapnyar conceals a fact from the reader (and Ben) for the sole purpose of creating a surprise near the novel's end.
To some extent, The Scent of Pine is a familiar love story as Ben awakens feelings in Lena that she can't recall experiencing with Vadim. The story is slight but it has the virtue of honesty. Fear of love is the novel's best theme. Lena fears love, not only because love hurts, but because it gives her the power to hurt someone else. Ben says: "practically every single thing that we do is either to distract ourselves from what is wrong with our lives, or to please somebody else, or to shield ourselves from reproaches and guilt" which causes us to live in cocoons, but emerging from the cocoon inevitably hurts someone, so we retreat to its safety and loneliness. It's a sad but not uncommon way of living and Vapnyar depicts it convincingly.
As a slice of life, The Scent of Pine lacks the heft of a more substantial novel. Despite its limitations and the rather colorless scenes that take place in the present, Vapnyar's prose style is graceful and the novel offers significant insight into its characters without overreaching. Those benefits make The Scent of Pine worth reading.