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This reading group guide forThe Scent of Pineincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Though only thirty-eight, Lena finds herself in the grips of a midlife crisis. It seems impossible she will ever find happiness again. But then she strikes up a precarious friendship with Ben, a failed artist turned reluctant academic, who is just as lost as she is. They soon surprise themselves by embarking on an impulsive weekend adventure, uncharacteristically leaving their middle-aged responsibilities behind. On the way to Ben’s remote cabin in Maine, Lena begins to talk, for the first time in her life, about the tumultuous summer she spent as a counselor in a Soviet children’s camp twenty years earlier, when she was just discovering romance and her own sexuality. At a time when Russia itself was in turmoil, the once-placid world of the camp was equally unsettled, with unexplained disappearances and mysterious goings-on among the staff; Lena and her friend Inka were haunted by what they witnessed, or failed to witness, and by the fallout from those youthful relationships. As Lena opens up to Ben about secrets she has long kept hidden, they begin to discover together not only the striking truths buried in her puzzling past, but also more immediate, passionate truths about the urgency of this short, stolen time they have together. Beautifully told with Vapnyar’s characteristic empathy and deadpan humor, The Scent of Pine is an unforgettable tale of longing, loneliness and the relentless search for love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Scent of Pine begins with a disclosure that at the Russian camp, “There were plenty of pines, and it was summer with a lot of warm, bright days, so couldn’t it have smelled nice at night? But it didn’t. The smell was moldy and damp and a little putrid” (1). Why do you think Vapnyar has chosen to title her novel The Scent of Pine and to begin it with such a vivid description of the scent itself? What does The Scent of Pine signify to Lena and to Ben?
2. As soon as Lena tells Ben that no one attended her talk, “Strangely, she felt better” (24). Why is Lena willing to admit this to Ben but not Vadim, her husband? When Lena lies to Vadim about the attendance of her lecture, she feels angry, not with herself but with Vadim for some reason” (17). Why do you think she’s angry at Vadim? Do you agree with her decision to lie to him?
3. What were your initial impressions of Ben? Why do you think that Lena asks Ben to take her to his cabin? Were you surprised by the impetuousness of the act. Why or why not? Why do you think that Ben agrees to take her?
4. Ben tells Lena, “Sometimes I think that the memories are better left behind” (97). Why do you think Ben feels this way? Do you agree with him? Lena revisits her memories by telling Ben about her summer working as a camp counselor. What effect does this have on her?
5. As Lena and Ben are driving, and she begins to feel comfortable in his car, she “realized that she was also starting to feel just as comfortable in the world of her story” (122). Throughout The Scent of Pine , the characters tell stories to each other. What do you think of the story Lena recounts to Ben of her summer at the Russian camp? Does it affect the way that they communicate and interact with each other? If so, how?
6. When Lena recounts her first date with Dayna, she tells Ben, “I wanted to tell him many things. I desperately wanted us to talk, because I was scared of what might happen if we didn’t talk” (162). Compare Lena’s interactions with Dayna to her interactions with Ben. How does she relate to both men? Were you surprised by what you learned about Dayna?
7. Ben tells Lena that for Erica, his first wife, “Happiness was peace. Happiness was having a husband and a child” (99). How do Ben and Lena each define happiness? Does it influence their behavior with each other and with their respective partners? In what ways?
8. How does Hands Over Blankets help Lena understand her past? Where does the title come from? As Ben and Lena are reading the book together, he puts his hand on her shoulder, an action that “felt very intimate” to Lena, “perhaps too intimate” (171). Why do you think the gesture feels too personal to Lena? Has reading Hands Over Blankets together altered their relationship? If so, how?
9. At Ben’s cabin, Lena feels “disoriented and strangely happy” and, when she tries to remember when she last had the same feeling, she realizes it was in the camp’s pool, “bobbing in the cold water, all mixed up and bewildered, and strangely stupidly excited” (140). In what ways is life at Ben’s cabin similar to Lena’s life at summer camp? Discuss what Lena’s life is like in each of the locations. How does it compare with what you know about Lena’s personal life? Why do you think both camp and Ben’s cabin make her feel so happy?
10. When Lena runs into Inka in New York, Inka “seemed happy to see Lena, but there was no real warmth” (5). Are you surprised by this after learning more about their friendship? Why did Lena and Inka initially become friends? Lena tells Ben that she’s “insanely jealous of [Inka’s] career, but it’s nothing compared to how jealous [she] felt when [she] thought that [Inka] was more popular than [her] in the camp” (43). Why do you think that’s the case?
11. In describing the camp, Lena tells Ben, “stealing was considered perfectly fine. Everybody stole. It would have seemed strange and even indecent if you didn’t. But of course everybody stole on their own level” (87). Give examples of how people at the camp “stole on their own level.” How is the camp a microcosm of what’s happening in Russia at the time?
12. Lena says, “it’s pretty easy to accept that love hurts. It makes you feel so helpless, unprotected. But at least you’re not to blame. It’s harder to accept that you can hurt other people. That you might be responsible for the bad things that happen to them” (166). In what ways has Lena been guilty of hurting others in matters of love? Are there other instances in The Scent of Pine where one character has been responsible for bad things happening to others? Discuss them. At one point during her storytelling, Lena and Ben joke that she is a femme fatale. In what ways could this be true?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. To gain insight into Vapnyar’s writing process, read “Katania” (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2013/10/14/131014fi_fiction_vapnyar), which was published in The New Yorker in October 2013. Then, read the article in The New Yorker where Vapnyar answers questions about the short story: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/10/this-week-in-fiction-lara-vapnyar.html
2. At the conference, “Lena was suddenly seized by an acute feeling of being a stranger in America” (17). Discuss how Lena’s life as an émigré has affected her. Then, watch this video where Lara Vapnyar discusses her own experience coming to the United States from Russia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7a38OE4uUMs Talk about how Lena’s story is influenced by Vapnyar’s own experiences.
3. When Lena begins to tell Ben about her time at summer camp, “she hadn’t thought about how foreign her story might seem to him.” (p. 62) Visit http://englishrussia.com/2013/08/25/abandoned-summer-camps/ to see pictured of Russian summer camps. How do the images compare to the way you imagined the summer camp that Lena describes? Talk about your impressions with your book club.
4. As they prepare for a long drive to Ben’s cabin, he tells Lena that he’s looking forward to hearing more of her story during the car ride. He says, “It’s like a welcome routine now. We go somewhere, we take a break from your story, then we come back to the car, and you start off where you stopped. I remember feeling like that when I was a child. I would be reading a book, a long attention-grabbing one…and I would have to leave…but I would be thinking of the book waiting for me at home” (102). Have you ever felt like that about a book while you’re reading it? Compare books with the other members of your book club and consider making them selections and your next book club meeting.
Lara Vapnyar moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994. Knowing very little English, she quickly picked up the language and soon began writing in it. She is the author of two story collections, There are Jews in My House and Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, and a novel, Memoirs of a Muse. She lives in New York City with her family.