Do you ever get the feeling that certain books find you?
I’m not trying to get all crystal chakras and magnetic healing here, it’s just that I’ve had this experience lately with the writing of Lara Vapnyar. Vapnyar is a Russian author who moved to the United States in her twenties and began writing as she learned English. I read a short story of hers in the New Yorker, “Katania”, a year ago. It is about a young girl growing up in the Soviet Union and her doll collection. The girl has a friend who comes over and plays with her dolls, and when she gets a father doll their friendship becomes rocky. As Vapnyar writes, father dolls are as hard to come by as real fathers:
“Nobody I knew had a father doll. Most of the kids I knew didn’t even have fathers. I didn’t have a father; mine died when I was two. My family consisted of my mother, my grandmother, and me. That was perfectly normal. Fathers had a tendency to die, or to lose themselves to alcoholism, or to simply ‘up and go.’”
I read the story once and found it unsettling, but memorable. I didn’t think of it again until my mother sent a link of it to me, saying: “What do you think?”
This was unusual. Normally my mother tells me what she thinks.
“It’s not bad,” I replied. “I liked it but didn’t love it.” But I was being harsh, because the story stayed with me. There is a brutal unvarnished reality to the author’s voice that is rare and compulsively readable. She writes of the intensity of childhood and then remembering it from an adult perspective, the memories and situations changing but in odd ways reflecting back.
Then I was at my local library a few weeks ago when a book on display at the end of a shelf caught my eye. It was the cover as much as anything: the mist and the sepia-toned mountainside. I added it to my pile purely on instinct.
I didn’t recognise the author’s name, and had no recollection of seeing it before, but when I picked up the novel I was mesmerised. It is a slim book and I read it in two evenings. It is based on a woman, Lena, who at 38 is unsatisfied with her marriage and her place in her adoptive country. She is from the former Soviet Union and works as an adjunct professor at a small community college. Her husband has taken her children to San Diego for the week while she is on her way, alone, to an academic conference. En route she runs into a friend from the Soviet summer camp she used to attend. This brief encounter makes her begin remembering the camp, where she was a counselor and where their main task seemed to be preventing the children from masturbating at night. The head counselor, Yanina Ivanovna, “a short beefy woman” instructed them to tell the children: “Hands over the blankets!”
At the conference, Lena meets another unhappy academic, Ben, who seems to feel as out of place as she does. She is presenting a paper on “Sex Education in the Former Soviet Union” but no one shows up to her talk. Later she tells Ben about this failure, and he says he would love to read it. They end up spending the night together. They then impulsively go to his isolated cabin in Maine, and on the drive she begins telling him about this summer camp – about some strange disappearances and the ways that her experiences at the camp have affected the rest of her life. This is a very interesting narrative tool, the story is told within snippets of conversation while another story unfolds, so there is the backdrop of this coming-of-age tale in a communist children’s camp against the foreground of a story of two middle-aged adults embarking on an affair.
One of the criticisms of fiction that irritates me is when people say that a character isn’t “likeable”. How boring if all characters were likeable. I don’t want to like them. I want to understand why they are acting how they act, though, to feel as though I know them and to find in them something of life that I recognise but don’t often see portrayed. I’d rather read books where children are cruel to each other, where people are selfish and blind, where something you thought was love actually isn’t at all, and where the love you eventually find causes as much pain and heartbreak as it does joy. I don’t think I’m a masochist, I’m a realist, and Vapnyar is a fabulous realist.
Back to The Scent of Pine, the narratives of then and now eventually meet, and Lena realises that a story she always thought true – one of her foundational memories – is clearly false. She realises that she has built her life on a lie that she has told so many times she has convinced herself that it is true.
I finished the book and thought: I know this writing from somewhere. Then I Googled her name and realised it was Lara Vapnyar who had written the New Yorker story. Like “Katania”, The Scent of Pine looks at how we remember those formative experiences from our childhood as adults. Vapnyar has the perceptive eye of an outsider and her language is beautifully understated. The twist at the end came as a surprise, and it bordered on unlikely, but on another level it worked.
I look forward to reading more, only next time I will be seeking out Vapnyar’s writing rather than waiting for it to find me.