The Scent of Pine

Although she's been writing in English only since 2002, just eight years after emigrating from Russia, Lara Vapnyar is already a prolific author, with two story collections (There Are Jews in My House and Broccoli and Other Tales of Food) and a novel (Memoirs of a Muse). The Scent of Pine, her second novel, is a brief, intense story of sexual awakening, linking the memory of an eventful summer at a Russian summer camp to a contemporary affair.

Lena, an adjunct professor of film at a community college, and Ben, who teaches the history of the graphic novel at Rutgers, meet at an academic conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Lena, a Russian immigrant and mother to two young boys, is disappointed in her marriage to a mathematician husband, while Ben, who's divorced, is in a relationship destined to end soon. Their mutual disillusionment leads to an affair.

On their way to Ben's cabin in the Maine woods, and continuing through the weekend the two lovers spend there, Lena spins out her story of the summer 20 years earlier, in the era of perestroika, she spent as a counselor at a children's camp run by the Soviet Ministry of Defense. Between the first stirrings of her sexuality, focused on the soldiers who serve at the camp, and the leadership's determination to tamp down their young charges' urges, the air is thick with sexual tension.

Vapnyar doesn't strive for any grand statement in The Scent of Pine. Instead, the story offers a small slice of life that depends for its appeal on her sharp observational eye and the precision of her characterization, the same talents she's displayed in her previous work. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

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