Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Alena," by Rachel Pastan

On 3/8/14, I wrote about how I re-read (and very much enjoyed) the classic novel “Rebecca” because I was planning to read a new novel that is an homage to that classic. I have now read that novel, “Alena” (Riverhead, 2014), by Rachel Pastan, and I am so glad I read the two novels one right after the other. The immediate comparison allowed me to see and appreciate the way “Alena” manages to match many plot points and characters from “Rebecca,” but not too slavishly; the two are clearly very separate novels. To begin with, they take place 75 years apart; “Rebecca” was written in 1938 and “Alena” is a contemporary novel. There are many other differences, but the similarities are fascinating. In fact, “Alena” would stand up well on its own, even for readers who don’t know “Rebecca,” but those readers would miss the enjoyment of making the connections. There is the nameless young heroine who is swept up by the older man, but in this case she is hired as a curator to a small museum rather than acquired as a wife (and the museum owner is gay, so there is no question of romance). The narrator of “Rebecca” feels her dead predecessor (as Maxim de Winter’s wife) Rebecca’s presence everywhere; the narrator of “Alena” feels her dead predecessor (as curator of the museum) Alena's presence everywhere. Both of the dead women had overpowering and slightly dangerous (in retrospect) personalities. In both cases there is a sinister friend of the dead woman – Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” and Agnes in “Alena” – for the new young woman to contend with. Each novel has a central mystery: how did the woman of the book’s title die? And each novel is suffused with a sense of dread and uncertainty. There are many other points in common, all executed very cleverly by author Rachel Pastan. I enjoyed reading “Alena” both for its echoes of “Rebecca” and for its own sake. In fact, I must add that “Alena” is better written than “Rebecca” was.

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