Thursday, October 30, 2014

Alena by Rachel Pastan

This book is a contemporary retelling of the classic Daphne DuMaurier book Rebecca. I read it because I love Rebecca, and because the author was coming to the Wisconsin Book Festival and I wanted to attend her reading. I also read it because I’m interested in modern retellings of classic novels. Pastan isn't the first to tackle Rebecca; a few years ago I read a book called Daphne, by Justine Picardie, which was a mashup of Rebecca and elements from duMaurier’s life.

The plots of Alena and Rebecca overlap considerably. Rebecca was written in the 1930’s and made into a popular movie starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. In that novel, a nameless young narrator tells of her marriage to a much older man, Max de Winter, and her life at his home, Manderley, where she lives in the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, who died under mysterious circumstances. Life at Manderley is fraught with anxiety. The servants, especially the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, adored Rebecca and view the narrator’s arrival with suspicion and hostility. Her attempts to run Manderley are undermined, she is filled with self-doubt, and duMaurier cleverly ratchets ups the tension with each chapter. In a dramatic conclusion, the details of Rebecca’s death emerge and the reader discovers that all is not as it seemed.

In Alena, author Rachel Pastan moves the setting from Cornwall to Cape Cod, thereby retaining the windswept isolation of the original novel. She moves the action to the present day, and gives the unnamed narrator a career – she is now a museum curator, hired by Bernard Augustin, an art collector, to run his contemporary art museum after the mysterious death of the previous curator, Alena. Like Max deWinter, Bernard is alternatingly attentive and remote. The narrator is inexperienced and in over her head. Agnes, the museum’s administrator, stands in for Mrs. Danvers.

I loved the choices Pastan made when she transformed the book to a contemporary setting. It was essential to give the narrator a career, and making her a curator gives Pastan (who works in a museum) a chance to populate the background with contemporary artists both real and imagined. Bernard Augustin is gay; this enables him to have an emotionally intimate relationship with the narrator while removing the marriage element from the story. I didn’t find Agnes to be as menacing as Mrs. Danvers. In Alena she is more of a caricature, in her black dresses and red nail polish – a kind of Cruella De Vil of the art world. My perception of all the characters was of course colored by what I know about Rebecca, and Pastan relies on this to a certain extent, especially when it comes to conjuring up the late Alena.

But do you have to have read Rebecca to read this novel? Absolutely not. It stands alone perfectly. It works as a mystery, as a coming-of-age novel, and as a commentary on the world of contemporary art. Pastan writes elegant prose that honors duMaurier’s work but which also envelops the reader in atmosphere and art.

(Book 20, 2014)