Lara Vapnyar's 'The Scent of Pine' Achieves Realism Without Sacrificing Story or Character

Lara Vapnyar's slim but haunting new novel The Scent of Pine (Simon & Schuster) manages to span two continents and delicately sketch out the shape of two lives: that of main character Lena, and of Ben, the man with whom she has a brief affair. The prose is simple but evocative as Lena's story unfolds, both her life as an American professor in an unhappy marriage and her past as a teenage camp counselor in Russia. As the book progresses, the two stories intertwine as Lena tries to sort through her complicated past.

The thing that stands out most after reading The Scent of Pine is how masterfully ordinary Vapnyar's characters are. Lena and Ben are both interesting, well-educated, and intelligent, but they also have never done anything remarkable by societal standards. They both lack confidence, and neither feels much sense of purpose or direction. In fact, it is striking how Vapnyar has managed to craft two characters who are both absolutely unique and yet also absolutely ordinary. It is an odd but refreshing experience to see an author resist the impulse to make characters special, instead making them them that much more real.

In fact, Vapnyar's clear-eyed view of the reality of human nature is on display throughout the book. She is able to perfectly capture scenes such as the slightly awkward experience of running into someone you used to know, both people "swearing that this time they would stay in touch for sure, though...[neither] of them really believed it." Or the quiet yet undeniable sense of being "crushed" when someone you once knew achieves the success you lack. Or the hopeless teenaged predicament of not knowing how to break into social circles.

Even the affair that is the focus of one of the book's two narratives is quiet and slightly awkward. Lena and Ben do not have a passionate, irresistible romance; they have an attraction to one another onto which they latch as a way to distract themselves from their real lives.

And yet somehow, despite the almost ruthless realism, the book feels very gentle, almost compassionate, and the ending manages to tie the threads together in a way that is not neat or manufactured, but satisfyingly real.

Overall, The Scent of Pine is a well thought out, deeply realistic book — which is all the more impressive considering that its dual narrative takes up only 180 pages. Vapnyar has created characters that readers will feel for and a story that will keep them guessing, but has done so with a sustained sense of realism that few novels ever achieve.