Alena is the rare book that stimulates the senses while allowing its readers to be seduced by the right kind of camp.
AlenaLength: 321 pages
Author: Rachel Pastan
Publication date: 2014-01
Rachel Pastan’s Alena begins with a line that seems so familiar you might think it's a joke. “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again”, establishes the narrator who will remain nameless throughout the rest of the story. With a nod so direct and obvious to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan is either extremely bold or plain insane; for how does one dare emulate the opening of du Maurier’s classic novel without falling into parody or faux pas? The answer, surprisingly, is that not only does Pastan avoid ridicule, she also delivers one of the most delicious novels of the year.
While the echoes of Joan Fontaine’s tremulous voice and the elegantly morbid sense of dread in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca seem almost impossible to escape, as we first meet the unnamed narrator of Alena, a young American woman working as a curatorial assistant for Louise, an older woman of “maybe 50”, who is described by Pastan as being almost a construction of different body parts and cosmetics.
The young, naïve narrator and her severe patroness arrive at the Venice Biennale where the young woman is “romanced” by the mysterious art-collector Bernard Augustin, who used to run the famous Nauquasset of the first sentence; a modern museum that was once the crowning jewel of the Cape Cod coast, until the enigmatic disappearance of its curator, the Russian beauty known as Alena.
The exotically named Augustin rightfully whisks the narrator away from her employer and gives her the curatorial position once occupied by Alena, but if you know your du Maurier, or your Hitchcock well, you know that things won’t necessarily turn out rosy for our heroine. Once in “Nauk”, the young woman realizes she will never be able to live up to the legacy left behind by Alena, who was bold and groundbreaking where she is old fashioned and insecure.
Haunted by the story of how Alena went out for a swim one night and never returned (her body was never found) the young woman sinks into an abyss of paranoia, despair and unfavorable comparisons, most of which are uttered by the vicious Mrs. Danvers-character who comes in the shape of the museum’s administrator Agnes (Pastan doesn’t even try to pretend she’s trying hard to be subtle), a childhood friend of Alena, who loves torturing the heroine.
All the other characters from Rebecca are present as well, and each one is even more despicable than the previous when it comes to their adoration of Alena and their contempt towards the woman trying to usurp her place. Yet the story is familiar enough to be welcoming and Pastan’s intention so strange that you can’t help but feel as if you’ve mysteriously landed into a dream where you know you’ve been before, but don’t really know how to get out of.
This is precisely where Alena finds its own voice. Pastan sees beyond homage and full on gives herself to pastiche. Her novel isn’t so much a riff on du Maurier, as it is a direct re-appropriation of it.
She never seems too reverential or overly respectful (not that she’s disrespectful, either) but she seems to be ecstatic about the fact that as a writer she is granted with the rare gift of having a perfect structure onto which to attach her own obsessions. Alena never feels like an updated version of a dated story, because Pastan is ever aware of the importance of canonical art pieces, and the novel often seems to be winking at us with the very notion that at its center, it is a critique of modern art.
Where du Maurier allowed herself to go into lush details about the English way of life and the beauty that was Manderlay, Pastan instead focuses on the concepts of modern art and tries to explore the metaphysical elements that linger between brilliance and bullshit. She is both attacking her very intent, while defending its rightful place in the world!
If the meta elements weren’t reward enough, there's something humorous and sensual in the way Pastan explores sexuality. Where in Rebecca there was an obvious nod to sexual impotency in the relationship between the heroine and Maxim de Winter. In Alena, the problem is solved most wonderfully by having Bernard be gay.
Pastan is too smart a writer to let cliché get in the way of her characters and avoids any stereotypical banter to occur between the heroine and her sophisticated employer. Instead of concentrating on luridness or sitcom-like events, she devotes passages to their shared love for the arts and their endless quest for beauty.
Alena is the rare book that stimulates the senses while allowing its readers to be seduced by the right kind of camp. For example by making Bernard gay, it’s not that the author is just trying to be “modern”, she might also be delivering her own commentary on Laurence Olivier’s sexuality... or not. Books are rarely as dishy, clever and elusively charming as this one.