The nameless main character of Alena is an aspiring art curator with no experience, currently working for an insufferable and self-important woman. The best thing she gets to do as part of this job is travel to the Venice Biennale, where she meets Bernard Augustin, a man with the aura of tragedy surrounding him. Two years ago, the curator of his museum and his childhood friend, Alena, disappeared mysteriously, and his famous museum, the Nauk, has been closed ever since. But Bernard sees something in our main character and invites her to fill Alena’s role at the Nauk. But what our narrator will realize is that the mysterious Alena left behind a larger-than-life legacy, and it’s possible that no one can live up to her memory.
A creative retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Alena sets the classic gothic story in the art world. Though Pastan struggles with her characters, this is still an interesting novel in its own right.
Rebecca is a modern classic, one that I absolutely love, so I’m going to simultaneously be wary of and want to devour any novel that claims to be a retelling. Retellings in and of themselves don’t bother me if the author is creative, but sticking to an existing story too much, trying to mold your characters and plot points to fit someone else’s, can sometimes backfire. In the case of Alena, it was moderately successful; the story was interesting, but the novel did have some issues. (And I’ll admit: the first line just did not work for me, something you’ll understand if you’re familiar with Rebecca.)
The characters in Alena were really the weak point of the novel. The anonymous main character is completely forgettable; if she wasn’t telling the story, you wouldn’t know she existed. She’s weak, naive, and cowardly. And yes, she’s supposed to be a wide-eyed innocent (as is the main character in Rebecca), but that’s supposed to be an asset. We’re supposed to find her a balance to Rebecca’s conniving ways, a breath of fresh air. Over the course of the novel, she’s supposed to find her voice and her place in the world, making it not Rebecca’s home, but her own.
Our nameless main character doesn’t exactly accomplish that in Rebecca. Not only does she never find her footing, but there are times when she is so cowed and awkward, unable to stand up to anyone for anything, that I cringed while reading. I pitied her, which is a dangerous emotion to have while reading. Pity implies a lack of respect, and that’s certainly in line with what I felt.
The art world setting of Alena is what really redeemed the novel, and it’s interesting that this is the place that the book most significantly departed from its inspiration. Pastan discusses many different aspects of the art world, including controversial modern art, and the reader is treated to a glimpse of the debates raging in that arena today. It’s interesting, and it makes it clear that Pastan can, indeed, write. Perhaps she would have done better writing an original novel rather than basing it on a classic that many people have strong feelings about. Either way, this novel does have its own merits, despite my issues with its characters; most of all, I look forward to seeing what Pastan does next, as it’s clear she’s a talented and creative writer.