Monday, March 17, 2014

Retellings: Alena by Rachel Pastan

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: January 23, 2014
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 308

From GoodReads: At the Venice Biennale, an aspiring assistant curator from the Midwest meets Bernard Augustin, the wealthy, enigmatic founder of the Nauk, a cutting-edge art museum on Cape Cod. It’s been two years since the tragic death of the Nauk’s chief curator, Augustin’s childhood friend and muse, Alena. When Augustin offers the position to our heroine (who, like du Maurier’s original, remains nameless) she dives at the chance—and quickly finds herself well out of her depth.

The Nauk echoes with phantoms of the past—a past obsessively preserved by the museum’s business manager and the rest of the staff. Their devotion to the memory of the charismatic Alena threatens to stifle the new curator’s efforts to realize her own creative vision, and her every move mires her more deeply in artistic, erotic, and emotional entanglements. When new evidence calls into question the circumstances of Alena’s death, her loyalty, integrity, and courage are put to the test, and shattering secrets surface.

My review: The first sentence of this Rebecca retelling starts out "Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again." I was so not impressed. It seemed to set up the rest of the novel as a poorly-fleshed-out rewriting of du Maurier's famous tale, just with New England and modern art inserted.

Fortunately, Alena improved from there. It's been some years since I read Rebecca, but it was clear that Alena departs from it in major ways (and also is close enough in others to refresh my mind on what happens in the original). Even though, due to schoolwork, it took forever for me to finish reading and I skimmed ahead to find out what happens, I found the storyline intriguing and suspenseful. If you're not familiar with Rebecca and are a geeky museum curator-type person (or just enjoy mystery-type novels), it's still a good read. For myself, though, I ended up being mostly interested in Pastan's re-interpretation of du Maurier's book. The way she worked the art museum world into the novel was fascinating.

But maybe because I don't actually do well with understanding and analyzing art, especially contemporary pieces, the ending fell a bit flat for me. It felt like there was this great build-up and then maybe the author didn't know how to resolve everything. I didn't fully grasp the reasoning behind characters' behaviors, and I felt things were wrapped up too quickly and left unresolved to a certain extent. It was a bit of a disappointment following on how much I enjoyed the rest of the book.

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