From its first line — “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again” — Alena, Rachel Pastan’s new novel, echoes its inspiration, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. However, Ms. Pastan’s interpretation of Rebecca‘s plot rejects recapitulation in favor of a refreshing focus on the workplace and contemporary art.
Alena‘s narrator, like du Maurier’s original, is an unnamed young woman from a modest background. Here, she is from the outset identified as a curator of contemporary art. On a trip to the Venice Biennale, she meets Bernard Augustin, the elegant, wealthy, and mysterious founder of a small museum on Cape Cod devoted to contemporary art — the Nauquasset, or Nauk. Bernard sees in her a fine sensibility and eye, and offers her the job of curator.
Arriving at the Nauk, the new curator finds that the staff, particularly the black-clad Agnes, still devoted to the previous (and presumed dead) curator, Alena. Alena’s touch and vision suffuses the small museum’s rooms and atmosphere, and soon the new curator must decide between reopening the museum with an exhibit of her own choice — or Alena’s choice, the grotesque art of a man named Morgan McManus. Meanwhile, clues to Alena’s disappearance linger in the shadows, waiting for their moment to appear.
One of the major differences between Alena and Rebecca is Alena’s shift of focus from the domestic environment to the workplace, a change wrought for the better (meaning no disrespect to Rebecca, of course). By raising the stakes (for example, from a country house party to the opening of a contemporary art museum), Alena pushes its focus outward from the personal into the world of art and the non-domestic workplace, without losing sight of the personal. The relationship between Bernard and his new curator, we learn quickly, cannot possibly be sexual, and doesn’t carry the erotic charge between Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter, but that does not diminish its intensity.
The novel is wonderfully evocative of Cape Cod in the summer (I speak from experience, here — my husband grew up on the Cape and we spend time with his family who live there), and lucid in matters of contemporary art. I’m not a contemporary art aficionado by any stretch of the imagination (on a college trip to Paris, I skipped the Centre Pompidou to spend the day at the Louvre, a trade I’d still make any day); I have a passing familiarity with Damien Hirst and Marina Abramovic, and I like Chihuly’s work very much, but that’s about it. Ms. Pastan refers to a great many more artists, but her descriptions of art are so finely crafted that it’s easy to imagine the art she describes.
Death, lying side by side with art, is the novel’s other fascination. Like Rebecca, Alena is suffused with creepiness, a sense of something malevolent lurking just around the next corner, biding its time. Add that sensation to the narrator’s overwhelming anxiety, and the result is a suspenseful read, daring in both its departure from and adherence to its source material.
Note: I received this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.
Tomorrow on the blog: An interview with Rachel Pastan, author of Alena