Deliberately invoking Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel about a young woman who marries a rich, older man after a whirlwind romance and from then on is constantly compared to the first Mrs. deWinter, former mistress of Manderley – Rachel Pastan’s third novel, Alena, begins with the line: “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.” Instead of a naive new wife, Alena has a twenty-five-year-old curatorial assistant as its sympathetic heroine and nameless narrator. From her lowly job at an also unnamed third-tier institution she calls the Midwestern Museum of Art, she is suddenly elevated to the position of curator of the Nauquasset, an avant-garde museum of contemporary art on Cape Cod. Internationally recognized, the museum is known in the art world simply as “the Nauk.”
The Nauk’s owner, Bernard Augustin – known for his debonair looks, great wealth, and established position in the art world – essentially picks up our nameless narrator at the Venice Art Biennale and, within a few days, offers her the job of a lifetime. Reassuring her worried mother back home that since her new employer is gay, the job offer has nothing to do with sex, she tells her disbelieving and discouraging current boss she’s leaving and steps in to take the place of the glamorous, exciting, creative Alena – the previous curator at the Nauk who disappeared mysteriously three years ago, presumed to have drowned while swimming alone at night, as she was known to do.
The Nauk belongs to the monied side of the Cape. Lit up at night, the building is an architect’s vision overlooking the water from the dunes. The cottage that the narrator is given to live in belongs more to the service economy side of the Cape; she can’t see the water from the windows, or even hear it. Too late, she wonders what she has gotten herself into.
With intriguing descriptions of art and equally sharp-eyed observation of people, this page-turner of a novel explores the feelings of the narrator as a strained and awkward newcomer in long-established groups – the museum staff, the board of trustees, the Cape’s wealthy patrons of the arts, and the temperamental local artists looking for recognition. Mingling with the salt air of the Cape is the Gothic air of mystery surrounding the disappearance of the enigmatic Alena, whose body was never found. The narrator is dying to know more about Alena, of course, but doesn’t want to appear too interested in her predecessor as she tries to establish herself in Alena’s former position, and prove that Bernard did not make a mistake when he chose her.
Why did he choose her?, she wonders. Another question she can’t ask anyone, certainly not the extremely private Bernard, although she yearns to ask him. At the same time, she wants intensely to protect him from the prying of others, allowing him his private grief over losing his lifelong friend Alena.
Instead of the huge Manderley estate and staff to manage, the unnamed narrator has the art museum and staff. The art world is still a man’s world; the narrator has to struggle to gain her footing in it even after such a leg up. Alena isn’t a re-creation of the romantic story of Rebecca (Bernard Augustin really is gay, has always been gay, and continues to be gay), but more a re-casting of the story in a different form to make readers think about how art resonates.
As for its Massachusetts setting, much of the novel takes place inside the narrator’s head or inside the museum, but there are some evocative descriptions of the ocean and scenery. The narrator is struck by the beauty and exoticism of Cape Cod. In her early morning walks on the bay side, she looks out over the water and wishes she might spy “great whales breeching,” and imagines seeing “wooden ships from the days of the explorers, their sails pregnant with wind.”
Although the setting seemed realistic to me, there’s no museum of contemporary art on Cape Cod that the fictional Nauquasset would seem to have been based on. (It may be more likely that some material springs from the author’s day job as editor-at-large at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.)
Even with its undercurrent of Gothic-style suspense, Alena isn’t intended to be a thriller, romantic or otherwise, although I think there will be inevitable comparisons to Gone Girl. I highly recommend Alena to readers who like the mysterious aspects and psychological murkiness of novels like The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, Half Broken Things by Morag Joss, and The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, and to readers of literary fiction in general. (I think it would make a great audiobook, as well. The Tantor audio edition is narrated by Carla Mercer-Meyer; listen to a sample here.)
January 23, 2014
Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of Alena through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. This book will be released on January 23, 2014.