ALENA by Rachel Pastan

ALENA

KIRKUS REVIEW

This gentle homage to du Maurier’s Rebecca teleports the story from a gloomy English mansion to an avant-garde Cape Cod art gallery.

Pastan's first-person narrator (as in Rebecca, never named) is a young, penniless art history graduate from the Midwest. In Venice, where she is serving as factotum to overbearing art maven Louise, the narrator meets wealthy Bernard Augustin, who owns a storied gallery called Nauquasset on Cape Cod. As in Rebecca, the narrator escapes her thankless job by following Bernard home but as his new head curator, not his wife. (Bernard is gay.) Once at Nauquasset, the narrator finds she has some capacious shoes to fill: Bernard’s best friend and former curator, Alena, disappeared one night while swimming, but the entire gallery staff seems to be still in her thrall. Like the passive aggressive servants at du Maurier’s Manderley, headed by the forbidding Mrs. Danvers, Nauquasset’s team undermines their new boss at every turn, and Mrs. Danvers’ doppelganger, Agnes the bookkeeper, treats her with undisguised contempt. Bernard is mostly absent on various business trips as the narrator struggles to establish her authority by launching a new show of shell sculptures by aptly named Cape Cod artist Celia Cowry. Here, she commits her first error: Not only were Bernard and his employees rooting for a transgressive installation by a wounded Gulf War vet, but Celia, at first grateful to be recognized after years of obscurity, is proving to be impossibly high-maintenance. Love interest is provided by hard-bitten local police chief Chris Passoa, who is investigating Alena’s disappearance. Although offering a wry, perceptive commentary on the contemporary art world, the novel lacks the creeping sense of dread pervading du Maurier’s classic. Nor does the narrator’s relationship with Bernard raise the dramatic stakes, not merely due to the fact that a curatorship is inherently less fraught than a marriage, but since Bernard, after launching the action, disappears from it almost as completely as Alena herself. However, unlike Alena, Bernard, when gone, is easily forgotten.

A technically able but rather tepid reimagining of the gothic staple Rebecca.

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-59463-247-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2013




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