Alena by Rachel Pastan: A review

AlenaAlena by Rachel Pastan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" is the sentence with which Daphne du Maurier began her iconic novel Rebecca. For me, that is one of the three most memorable beginnings of all the books I have ever read. The other two?

"Call me Ishmael." (Moby Dick)

And, of course, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." (The Hobbit)

But those two are very different kinds of novels, and the beginning of Rebecca, I think, is the most memorable for me.

When I was a teenager, I was under the spell of du Maurier and her books. I read them over and over again, but none more often than Rebecca. Somewhere in there I also saw Alfred Hitchcock's movie which was a wonderfully faithful realization of the much-loved book. When I heard a review on NPR's "Fresh Air" a few days ago of Rachel Pastan's new book Alena and the reviewer mentioned that the book was an homage to Rebecca, of course I had to read it.

Pastan begins her book with a very conscious tip of the hat to du Maurier. "Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again," she writes. With that beginning, she reimagines du Maurier's novel in all of its essential details.

Instead of the innocent young ingenue rescued from a boring life as a traveling companion to a rich, older woman by the dashing Maxim de Winter, we get an innocent young curatorial assistant from the Midwest arriving for the first time at the Venice Biennale with her boss, a demanding middle-aged woman curator who seems determined not to allow her assistant to see any of the art in Venice. Enter wealthy museum director and art-world gadfly Bernard Augustin who has a small contemporary museum on Cape Cod. Our young narrator, who remains nameless just like the narrator in Rebecca, catches Augustin's eye and when her boss insists on leaving the Biennale early, cutting short her assistant's chance to experience the art of Europe, he offers the young woman a job as a curator at his museum and invites her to stay in Europe and travel with him.

Of course, she accepts. Otherwise, we wouldn't have a story.

In a twist on the original novel, there is no romantic relationship between the young woman and Augustin. He is, in fact, gay, but theirs is a relationship founded firmly on their love of art.

On returning to Cape Cod and the museum called the Nauk, we learn that the museum has been closed for two years ever since its former curator, Alena, disappeared. It is believed that she went swimming in the surf one night, as she was wont to do, and that she drowned. She never returned and has never been heard from again. Her body was never found, but her spirit - her ghost - haunts the Nauk and all the people associated with it.

Soon it haunts the new curator as well, as she is constantly compared (unfavorably) to Alena. Alena was knowledgable, sophisticated, and daring in her choices for the museum. How can a novice possibly live up to that?

The malevolent Mrs. Danvers role is taken here by the museum's business manager, Agnes, a childhood friend of Alena's who was completely devoted to her and who doesn't think much of the new curator. All the other members of the cast that we remember from Rebecca are represented in different guises as well. They are mostly snobbish and unpleasant people except for the dishy local police chief who soon discovers a mutual attraction for our young narrator.

All in all, this is a patient and fairly faithful rendering of the old story that I knew so well, and much of the writing was really good, I thought. Sometimes though it wanders off into the esoteric, self-referential language of the art world. Maybe this was meant as a deliberate skewering of a group of people who perhaps take themselves far too seriously, but at times it became just a little too campy for my taste.  

Still, it was a fun read, and if it does not quite rise to the level of du Maurier, it is a worthy effort, even if I won't necessarily be adding "Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again" to my list of most memorable beginnings to novels.

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