Book Review: Alena
by Rachel Pastan
Riverhead Books*, 2014
If the pointed epigraph of Rachel Pastan’s third novel, Alena, doesn’t do the trick, the first line certainly will: “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.” Yes, the ‘high concept’ conceit here is a modern-day recasting of Daphne du Maurier’s phenomenally popular 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca, with Cape Cod standing in for Cornwall. It’s a neat marketing gimmick (book publishers can confidently assume that their potential customers have all read Rebecca, and the most amazing thing about such an assumption is that it might very well be right), and it’s just dorky enough to be true, but the best thing anybody coming to this novel could do – for themselves and for the novel – is to ignore the gimmick altogether and just read Alena for its own merits. The du Maurier homages reward devotees, but they also create the risk that Rebecca-decoding will supplant Alena-enjoying as the main occupation in the book.
That shouldn’t happen, because Alena is a very good novel, quite possibly as good as its inspiration.
The story begins when the unnamed narrator, a Midwestern ingenue and assistant curator of a third-rate institute, who fancies she has a “mind” for art, is brought to Venice’s famed Biennale by her shrewish boss and duly marvels at the sights and sounds she’s only before seen in art class:
It was hot, the crown of sun blazing in the aching sky, and the sour smells of rot and muck threaded up from the water and the slimy stones and the dark, dank corners of the luminous city. How odd it seemed, the facades of the palaces there before my eyes but entirely remote, so that it was almost as though I were still sitting in a darkened classroom looking at slides projected on a screen. Were there people in there? Sleeping, eating, bathing, talking? It was impossible to imagine; it was unreal.
Hardly any time passes before she meets charismatic art world entrepreneur Bernard Augustin, the founder of Cape Cod’s eccentric Nauquasset Contemporary Museum (“very small, sort of a vanity museum”), which has been shuttered for two years since the death of its previous head curator, the beautiful and alluring Alena. Augustin is taken by our narrator (her appreciation of a local Cape Cod artist helps nudge the process along) and impulsively offers her Alena’s old job. The narrator jumps at the opportunity – the scene where she calmly informs her boss that she’s not going back to the States just yet is the low-key daydream of every museum drudge who’s ever endured the inanity of the Biennale – and soon she’s headed for her first exposure to the Cape, which Augustin movingly describes:
“It’s barely land at all. Just a curved ribbon unrolling into the blue – or smoky gray – Atlantic. The sky is so wide open, and everything is always in motion. The grass, the flags, the clouds. Even the land, shifting under you. It’s a bleak landscape in some ways, especially in winter, but I’ve never been anywhere else I felt so alive.”
Once arrived and installed as the new curator of “the Nauk,” she does her best to acclimate to Cape life, getting to know the museum’s staff (who are, naturally enough, devoted to the memory of her predecessor), going for swims in the ocean (and noting its subtle differences from the Great Lakes), and acquainting herself with the colorful locals of Nauquasset and the surrounding environs, including strapping policeman Chris Passoa, viewed through her Upper Midwestern perspective:
He reminded me of the men of my childhood, friends of my father and of my older brothers, who could split a cord of firewood in an easy afternoon, shoot a rabid skunk at dusk, chow down half a pork roast at supper, and whistlingly ease a cow through a hard labor at midnight, no effort or muck or animal stupidity or human failure ruffling their steady competence. There was a kind of uniform tranquility, an ageless, timeless sufficiency about them – about him – that consoled me, though I had fled from it not so very long ago.
It’s around this point in the novel that some readers may agree with the narrator when she plaintively thinks: “Must every action – every word and thought – recall Alena? Swimming, currents, beaches, exhibitions, artists, parties. How long until my bodily presence had half the substance her absence did?” Despite its inspirational source material, Alena very wisely doesn’t attempt to re-create the Gothic miasma of Rebecca, but since it’s only that kind of miasma that allows the best Gothic novels to be so damn single-minded, its absence causes some of Alena‘s moving parts to grind against each other rather more noisily than Pastan probably intended. The strain prompts her to haul onstage a bit of third-act melodrama (involving bones!) that certainly adds some punch to the book’s ending but that feels a little forced when capping such a cerebral and confident narrative. There’s a lot more than mere pastiche going on here; Rebecca readers – all of us, in other words – will find plenty of new stuff to love.
*”Riverhead Books,” that is, solely by virtue of the letters printed on the book’s dust jacket; the publisher’s website itself makes no mention whatsoever of either book or author, nor does her website mention them. Talk about Gothic.