Alena by Rachel Pastan


“Last night I dreamt of Nauquasset again.”

…wait, what?

To be completely fair to Rachel Pastan, I don’t know how else she was supposed to open a novel that’s an updated version/homage/restaging of Daphne du Maurier’s (masterpiece) Rebecca. Everybody knows the famous “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” opening line. I mean, you have to do the line, right?

But “Manderley” is vaguely poetic, mysterious, slightly sinister, and rolls easily off the tongue. “Nauquasset” sounds kind of like the noise you make when hocking a particularly stubborn loogie, and that comparison pretty well sums up the difference between the two novels. Credit where credit is due, however: Pastan, by writing an updated version of one of the best novels of all time, has some iron-clad balls for even attempting this feat, and an extra half-star has been given to the rating in appreciation of her bravery.

I usually ignore offers to read and review Advanced Readers’ Copies, but this one I couldn’t resist. Like I said, Rebecca is one of my favorite books, and the publishers of this one made sure to include the quote where John Irving called it “simultaneously creepy and entrancing.” Good enough for me, I figured. Let’s dive in. (reviewer’s note: as the copy I read was an ARC, all quotes in this review may be slightly different in the final published version)

Once again, our narrator is a naive young girl (nameless, as in the original) who goes to Europe with an older employer (in this case, the Venice Biennale and the head curator of the Midwestern art museum where our heroine works) and meets a sophisticated and mysterious older gentlemen who sweeps her off her feet but clearly Has Some Issues. Instead of a marriage proposal, however, the man (here named Bernard Augustin) offers her a job as the curator of a small contemporary art museum in New England. (In the novel’s only really innovative diversion from the original text, Bernard is openly gay – a fact that, ultimately, doesn’t make much difference in the story, because the romance between du Maurier’s narrator and Maxim de Winter was always Rebecca‘s weakest element) At the museum – the, ugh, “Nauk” – the staff is still loyal to the memory of the last curator, a woman named Alena who…wait for it…drowned mysteriously.

Here’s where we run into problems: anyone who has read Rebecca knows every twist in this story before they even start.  Pastan doesn’t use every plot point from du Maurier’s book, choosing to make up some side quests of her own, but they include the narrator trying to secure an artist’s work for the Nauk’s reopening and having a pointless affair with a cop. No disastrous costume ball here, folks. In fact, with the central mystery of who Alena really was and how she died effectively removed by my knowledge of the plot of Rebecca, I was left with a slightly plodding story of a girl trying to do a job that she is almost hilariously unqualified to do. I found myself wondering, why doesn’t she just quit? She’s clearly miserable, and it’s not like there aren’t other opportunities for her. In Rebecca, the narrator was well and truly trapped in her circumstances – she couldn’t exactly sit down to breakfast with Maxim and say, “This place is fucking creepy and I think your housekeeper is trying to kill me, can I get a divorce please?” But Alena takes place in modern day, and the social mores that constrained du Maurier’s narrator don’t exist in this setting. (speaking of the housekeeper, Pastan splits Mrs. Danvers into two characters: the museum’s bookkeeper and her niece, and I have no idea why this happened, especially because the niece could have easily been replaced by a coat rack and no one would have noticed)

Pastan makes a last attempt to do something interesting with her version when she reveals the circumstances of Alena’s death – she tries to up the ante by turning the death into something so needlessly premeditated and overly complex it’s like the worst pulpy murder mystery. It reads sort of like the writers on CSI were sitting around at 2 am thinking, “What’s the dumbest way someone can get murdered?” and this is what they came up with.

The final nail in the coffin here is the writing itself, which is so crammed full of what my writing professor called “purple prose” that I could flip to any random page and find a gem like this: “I’d thirsted for information about Alena the way a plowed field thirsts for rain, and now the first drops were scattering from the darkened skies.”

Somewhere in here is a really good story about contemporary art and what it means to the people who work in that world, and how to be an artist in the modern day. But ultimately, Alena becomes the literary personification of the second Mrs. de Winter: Alena can’t manage to escape the shadow of its vastly superior and more capable predecessor. It’s unfair to Alena, of course, to keep comparing it to RebeccaRebecca was beautiful, compelling, and fucking crazy. Alena can’t possibly measure up, but deserves credit just for trying.

Verdict: two and half stars


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