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Alena: A Novel - Rachel Pastan
”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again". 

”Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again.”

If you feel the electricity of a déjà vu moment from reading those lines, it is because you have just heard an echo that has been sent down the cavernous halls of a deep passage, and the words, in the course of travelling back to you, have been elongated into something slightly different. 

This book was written as a homage to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a book considered by many to be a masterpiece. The characters from Rebecca are here, still recognizable, but erased, smudged, spackled, and redrawn. The main character, nameless as she is in the du Maurier book, is an art museum curator at the beginning of her career. She, by a stroke of luck, gets a chance to go to the Venice Biennale, an Italian celebration of contemporary art that is scheduled every two years. She meets Bernard Augustin, a wealthy patron of the arts who owns a cutting edge museum on Cape Cod called The Nauk. 

”Bernard Augustin crouched on the floor beside me in a mist-gray suit with a pale orange pocket square and a cravat. His pant legs were hiked up, and I could see his socks--oyster-gray silk, calf length. I’d never seen such beautiful socks in my life.”

One never knows when one will be leaning over an attractive young woman in such a way that reveals your socks. Always wear high quality socks or in the case of myself, today at least, interesting socks. They are of the Vitruvian Man by Da Vinci, and yes, in the proper circles they have created their own fair share of envy. 

Yes, Bernard is Maximilian de Winter, and he has the same Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde aspect to his personality. One moment he is the most charming man on the planet, and the next he is the stormy, moody, distant, unreadable man that becomes impossible to predict. 

On what seems like a whim, he offers this young lady, currently employed as the go-fetch girl for her sick/hungover overbearing boss, an appointment of a lifetime. It has been two years since Alena has died, and Bernard, encouraged by his distance from Nauquasset and by the refreshing gleam in this girl’s eyes, wants to recapture some of his lost passion for art by bringing her back to Cape Cod to reopen his museum. 

He throws her to the crows. Well, one really. 

”She was large, tall and overweight, wearing a black, low-cut, calf-length dress. Her hair, an unnatural, glassy, pink-streaked black, made her pale face look even paler than it was, pale as a fish belly, or a scrim of frost. How did she manage that, living here? Her lips and fingernails were painted crimson, and her lobeless ears were studded up and down with holes, most of them empty except for the two long curtains of red stones and gold filigree that rippled and swung whenever she moved her head. A gold chain hung around her neck, disappearing down the top of her dress to lodge invisibly between her breasts, which looked hard and potentially dangerous, like a pair of torpedoes. 

Always in black, always gliding about, and always squawking about Alena, Agnes is a colossally unhappy person, the punk rock version of Mrs. Danvers. She was the heels on Alena’s shoes. She was the strap on Alena’s bras. She was the zipper on Alena’s dress. Now and forever she would have to hold together the image of Alena by being the chronicler of her existence. 

”She was talking about Venice. Every year it gets duller, Aggie, she said. The art world, more shiny and obvious. Oh, the artists are all so clever--they’d fuck with their brains if they could! She liked to say that--they’d fuck with their brains--it made her laugh. She’d had enough of the mind, it was the body that interested her. The art she loved--the artists she loved--were the artists of the body. Marina Abramovic, Catherine Opie, Carolee Schneemann. Art should be felt in the gut, she said. Art should scare you. It should take your breath--literally--away.”

Rebecca was beautiful, but Alena was reliant for her beauty on the intangibles that do not show up in the deceptive eye of a camera. 

”She wasn’t beautiful. Her face was asymmetrical, as though she comprised two slightly different versions of herself, and her nose was sharp and bumpy, like a shard of rock. But there was something about her. Her black eyes glowed and her white neck stretched, lifting her pearly breasts slightly out of her black spangled dress. She moved with the self-conscious elasticity of a dancer, and her sharp mobile face drew the eye, as though she were a burning candle and the rest of the world were moths.” 

Jack Favell, the disreputable cousin of Rebecca so deftly played by George Sanders in the movie, is reincarnated in this book as Morgan McManus, a performance artist obsessed with war and amputated body parts. He was in the first Gulf War, wounded in combat, and came back missing an arm and a leg. He has manufactured a closet full of artful prosthetics that he wears as if they are accessories rather than necessities. 

”The arm itself was carved--or, more likely fabricated to look carved--in the manner of a totem pole, with strange squat figures in raspberry pink and turquoise stacked on top of one another. These figures had big staring eyes and peculiar limbs that, looking closer, I saw were depictions of the very limbs McManus was wearing--self-referential self-portraits, then, in a primitivist style, of a new race of prosthetic men. Each figure had a fat red quill slashed across the middle that I took at first to be a knife. But then it came to me that it wasn’t a knife at all but an erect phallus--a priapic animus--a defiant symbol of potency engraved into the inanimate limb.”

When something (I can’t tell you.) washes up on shore that has the police questioning the previous held assumptions of Alena’s death, McManus, just like his doppelganger in Rebecca, casts aspersions that force the investigator to make further enquiries of Mr. Bernard Augustin.

Our young heroine has been thrust into a situation that not only has nothing to do with her, but is almost impossible for her to fathom. She misses the Bernard that she met in Venice and is starting to doubt that the debonair and endearing Bernard ever existed. 

”I must have known then, dimly, or suspected; not what he had done exactly, which no one could have guessed, but that he had done something. Like a swimmer caught in a current, I flailed in the tide of my dawning knowledge, unwilling to acknowledge or even consider the implacable, indelible truth.”

I was worried about the concept of this book, but it is so charmingly conceived that I soon relaxed and let myself be carried away by a brilliant plot once again. I found myself smiling whenever I would discover how Pastan had altered a character or had skewed a bit of plotting. If you haven’t read Rebecca, use this book as an excuse to read it and then read this book. The experience of one will be enhanced by the other. 

My daughter, who is artistic, couldn’t help touching the cover of this book. The blobs of paint on the cover do look so realistic that your fingers expect to be met by the texture of paint. I’m curious to see if they will increase that illusion with adding ridges to the dust jacket. This book is scheduled for release on January 23rd, 2014, so those who wish to take my suggestion and readRebecca before reading Alena have time to make that happen. 

I think it was Rolling Blob or Standing Still Stoned Magazinethat said my review of Rebecca “kicked ass”. Click to read the Rebecca Review