In The Scent of Pine, a new novel by the celebrated writer Lara Vapnyar, a struggling college lecturer away from her husband and children at an academic conference falls into an uncharacteristic affair with a charismatic and successful professor. Already long alienated from her floundering marriage, Lena finds surprising intimacy in the affair and begins to plumb her personal history as the budding relationship loosens her inhibitions and lethargy.
Two unfolding stories are skillfully interwoven — the illicit present-day romance between Lena and Ben in New England, and Lena’s coming-of-age at summer camp in the Soviet Union, which she recounts to Ben in intimate detail over the course of their tryst. Yet, “The camp story will be over sooner or later. As will the story of Lena and Ben. If only she could learn some of Scheherazade’s storytelling magic and make it last,” Lena thinks to herself. A lingering mystery from summer camp days emerges through Lena’s narration, connecting the story and the storyteller across time and space.
The UnAmericans, a debut short story collection by the young and talented Molly Antopol, covers similar geographic terrain. Ranging across Eastern Europe, America and Israel, each short story has a sharp poignancy, a surprisingly bittersweet vulnerability.
In “The Old World,” a well-intentioned second marriage comes up deeply, heartbreakingly short. The disappointed disappointing husband wonders, “How had I let myself become just another sad old man at a table for one?” In “Minor Heroics,” sibling rivalry and sibling love overlap and intertwine on kibbutz. Oren has always envied and admired his older brother Assaf — but when Assaf is severely wounded in a tractor accident the roles are reversed, and Oren can’t bear his own newfound dominance over his brother. In “Retrospective,” Mira’s marriage may or may not be disintegrating — coinciding with the death of her domineering, withholding, fabulously wealthy grandmother. She cries to her husband, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be with someone who exists so fully in his head. Who has no desire to leave our weird little cocoon.”
In both The UnAmericans and The Scent of Pine, the authors employ a deceptive simplicity in their writing. The tropes, the dialogue — even the archetypal characters — are in some ways familiar, bordering even on predictable. The ambiance and appeal of Eastern Europe, and of Eastern European descendants in America, are also well-trodden fiction terrain (thanks in no small part to the success of Vapnyar and her thriving cohort).
Yet Antopol and Vapynar share a deep and devastating gift for eliciting extraordinary emotional reaction from the recognizable intimacies of relationships. The sharp pain of suddenly seeing a parent’s weakness exposed, the bright starkness of a partner’s insecurity or disregard, the thrill of sexual conquest — these fundamental experiences are conveyed in such bare, compelling, unaffected voice that it is virtually impossible not to recognize yourself in every different character in these two excellent books. The familiar territory of the books makes the unexpected emotional impact of the stories all the stronger.
Sonia Isard is a Lilith contributing editor.