Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review of "Alena" by Rachel Pastan

This book, an homage to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, follows an arc that's very similar to the original story.

At the beginning of "Alena" the unnamed narrator, a young woman working as a curatorial assistant at the Midwestern Museum of Art, is attending the Venice Biennale (contemporary art show) with her demanding employer. The narrator catches the eye of a refined, fiftyish, gay gentleman named Bernard Augustin, who runs a private museum called Nauquasset (The Nauk) on the Cape Cod coast.

Bernard is impressed with the narrator's 'artistic eye' and - just as the young woman is about to be spirited home by her ailing boss - offers her the position of curator of The Nauk. Bernard then takes the narrator on a whirlwind tour of art capitals in western Europe before whisking her back to Massachusetts, where she's installed in a damp little house on Cape Cod.

The next day the young woman reports to her elegant office in The Nauk where she's introduced to her museum colleagues, all of whom act disdainful (or worse). In fact Agnes - the formidable, garish, black-clad general manager of the museum - is outright hostile. We learn that Agnes was very close to the museum's previous curator Alena - a striking, raven-haired Russian woman - who disappeared two years ago. It's presumed that Alena, whose body was never found, drowned during a night swim in the ocean.

Though Alena is long gone, her assertive, colorful, larger than life aura still seems to permeate The Nauk. The narrator, by contrast, is self-conscious and retiring - almost afraid to ask Agnes a question, request desk supplies, personalize her office, etc. Moreover Bernard, instead of helping the curator settle in, leaves town for museum business.

The Nauk, which has been shut since Alena vanished, is set to re-open. For her first big job the new curator is tasked with organizing a show for The Nauk's inauguration on Labor Day weekend, which is only a couple of months away. The Nauk employees assert that Alena promised the next show to Morgan McManus, a Gulf War vet who lost an arm and a leg. Morgan's 'body art' consists of raw images of bombed and mutilated corpses, casts of dismembered limbs, pictures of splattered brains, and so on.

The narrator is disturbed by Morgan's images and - despite pressure from Agnes and others - offers the opening show to a local African-American artist named Celia Cowry, who makes delicate ceramic shell sculptures. Unfortunately, the curator fails to consult Bernard before booking Celia, which causes a mild kerfuffle. In addition Celia turns out to be a difficult, demanding woman....and The Nauk staff are a bit obstructive. Still, with a lot of hard work the show goes on.

During all this the narrator starts a low key affair with the local Police Chief, Chris Passoa, who investigated Alena's disappearance. And.....(dramatic drum roll).....a new clue shows up that suggests Alena was murdered! Chief Passoa's renewed investigation leads to the book's climax, where we learn more about Alena's personality, art obsessions, and death. For me, Alena's story is too convoluted, and her demise too contrived.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I did enjoy the narrator's observations about art history, art appreciation, different kinds of art, the relationship of art to politics and race, and so on. For me this was interesting and educational.

On the downside, the book lacks the air of menace and danger that pervades "Rebecca", where the heroine's life seems to be in danger. Instead, The Nauk's curator has to deal with employees who snicker behind her back, give her snide looks, and (maybe) perpetrate some minor vandalism. Moreover, the narrator brings some of the grief down on herself. She wears a wrinkled travel outfit on her first day of work and has only one dress (a little black number) for all formal occasions. It doesn't seem to occur to the young woman to have her clothing, books, and other possessions sent from the midwest.....nor does she do much shopping. In consequence the narrator presents a dowdyish picture in comparison to glamorous Alena.

The young woman is also unrealistically timid. Unlike the main character in Rebecca, the curator is an independent gal with some experience of the world - having attended graduate school in New York City and worked in a museum. I kept thinking she should be able stand up for herself.

Overall, the story is okay, though I'm not sure why an author would want to rewrite a classic. Nevertheless, people who haven't read "Rebecca" can enjoy this book as a compelling original story. And readers familiar with "Rebecca" might get a kick out of making comparisons.

Rating: 3 stars

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