Change was slow to spread across Russia after the fall of communism: “In 1989, Perestroika, and the sexual revolution, had yet to reach summer camps and pedagogical colleges,” and 18-year-old camp counselor Lena, the main character in Lara Vapnyar’s new novel, “The Scent of Pine,” was fervent in protecting her 29 charges from sexuality and “the dangers of masturbation.” However, Lena began to discover her own sexuality that summer, leading to a series of adventures — and questions — that will haunt her well into her adult life.
Fast-forward 20 years: Lena has immigrated to the United States and feels trapped in a lonesome marriage and unfulfilling career. In many ways she has remained the timid, questioning young girl from camp: unsure of her footing, yet determined to find love. While traveling to Maine with her lover, Ben, Lena tells him the story of her summer at camp and the two tales — one past, one present — blend together, forming a narrative around the fleeting nature of happiness and the shame — and joy — of desire.
While there are a number of poignant moments in this coming-of-age meets-midlife-crisis novel, “The Scent of Pine” suffers from repetition, making it feel much longer than its slim 180-pages. With so much time focused on Lena and her personal struggles, the novel’s other characters (especially her doltish lover) remain underdeveloped, existing only as blurry background against Lena’s constant brooding. It’s never clear why Lena is with Ben, other than out of convenience, making Lena’s confessions of love and admiration seem just as childish as her camp romances.
Part “Before Sunrise” and part “Hear Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, “The Scent of Pine” may have been more successful as a novella, or a short story even: shedding the weight of unnecessary scenes and placing the focus on development, not description.