Worth A Read: Alena, by Rachel Pastan


The BUZZ: Rachel Pastan’s third novel, a homage to the classic, Rebecca.

The GIST: While in Venice at the Biennale, a young mid-western curator’s assistant meets Bernard, the wealthy, magnetic owner of a Cape Cod contemporary art museum. The two connect over a harmonious response to Giotto, and Bernard offers her a job as curator.  His museum, The Nauk, has been closed for two years following the mysterious disappearance of Alena, the brilliant and beloved former curator.  Our un-named narrator accepts the job, but soon finds herself shrinking under the weight of Alena’s heavy presence in every corner of the museum, including the hearts of the staff.  The story cleverly parallels du Maurier’s Rebecca, with the main characters refigured into the contemporary art world.

The WRITING: Potent. Pastan borrows only the bones of Rebecca.  The characters align, but are not the same.  This story has its own direction, with a good plot and plenty of mystery and twists.  Minus the romantic element of its blueprint, Alena maintains the same creepy, gothic tone.  The Nauk is as important a character as Manderley was, and is described so well I could hear and smell the ocean outside its windows.  An entertaining element of the book is Pastan’s presentation of the contemporary art world, including some real artists and their contributions, along with the pretentious posturing of collectors and dealers. We are treated to a steady, palpable examination of the purpose of art- why we want and need it, and how it makes us feel. The author’s descriptions of the Cape and its locals and summer residents is spot on and engaging, especially if you are familiar with that setting.

BUY or BORROW?: Borrow. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing and story, but can’t imagine picking it up for a second read.  My copy of Rebecca is revisited every few years, and I still want to keep it on the shelf.

QUOTE: “Without artists, would this heritage have descended to us?  Would the words and deeds – the revelation – have survived the arduous journey into the present without the painters, the mosaic workers, the storytellers, the stone carvers, the poets, the singers, the workers in stained glass?  Wasn’t it art, I thought… that had been the carrier of the divine?”

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