An unnamed, ingenue heroine. A dramatic location by the sea. A wealthy and cultured older gentleman. If this sounds like the plot of the beloved mystery Rebecca, it is—but Rachel Pastan’s third novel pays homage to the Daphne du Maurier classic while adding a few new twists. Alena’s young heroine is a curator at a small art museum in the Midwest. Visiting the Venice Biennale with her employer, she is introduced to Bernard Augustin, the wealthy and enigmatic founder of the Nauquasset, a museum on Cape Cod that specializes in cutting-edge work. The Nauk has been closed for two years, ever since the disappearance of the chief curator, Alena. When Augustin offers the position to our narrator, she is eager to prove herself, but she is soon drawn into deep emotional and ethical entanglements at the museum.
The remaining staff at the Nauk is fiercely loyal to Alena’s memory, to the point of keeping her private office like a shrine. A performance artist whose violent imagery references the first Gulf War turns up, claiming Alena promised him the next exhibition, but the young curator finds herself drawn instead to the work of a local ceramicist—a conflict that leads to rifts among the museum staff. It is to Pastan’s credit that she makes the curatorial arguments as compelling as the mystery of Alena’s disappearance.
For people who love Rebecca, there are all kind of allusions and asides—names, locations and plot points. The transformation of Mrs. Danvers to Agnes, the Nauk’s creepy bookkeeper and business manager, is especially clever. But Alena stands on its own, and Pastan’s experience working in a contemporary art museum brings a grounded reality to the running of a museum and the complex questions of identity, aesthetics and originality in contemporary art.