In Vapnyar’s (Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, 2008, etc.) latest novel, a simplicity of narrative—two strangers share their lives over a weekend together—belies the complexity of interwoven themes and ideas.
As the book begins, Lena is a self-conscious, self-criticizing woman traveling to an academic conference she does not feel prepared for, being only a professor at a community college. The trip, though, is also a temporary escape from her miserable marriage and, thus, welcome. En route, she fixates on the summer she spent, many years ago, as a counselor for 8- to 10-year-olds at a summer camp in her native Soviet Russia. There, though an outsider by nature, Lena had a friend in her co-counselor, Inka. At camp, there was the prospect of romance, and sex, with the male soldiers who worked there. There was gossip and fantastic stories told not only by Lena and Inka, but by the children they tended. And there were mysteries, too. Small things that touched Lena personally, but didn’t add up and never resolved. It’s clear that, in some space of Lena’s head, she has never left. At the conference, she meets Ben, a university professor who teaches courses on graphic novels. Because he is interested, and asks her directly, Lena begins to tell Ben stories from camp, stories she’s never told before—walking through woods, corralling children, the heat wave and the mysteries that persist. Ben has his own strangely intense childhood stories and is equally unhappy in his relationship. Impulsively, they embark on a road trip together, sharing chapters of their lives along the way; both characters grow more vivid in the process, as if dusting each other off for new use. Vapnyar’s writing style feels like Lena’s camp—everything seems to be in plain sight, but one can sense deeper truths hiding below the surface. As Ben and Lena get close to uncovering some of these truths, their time together inevitably dwindles. Purely silly moments, the headiness of strangers connecting and the universal nature of summer camp lighten the mood.
Slight in girth but not in depth.