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. Read more...
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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.
Stirring and provocative, "Alena "is the result of a delicious visitation of one of the most popular novels of the twentieth century on a brilliant and inventive novelist of the twenty-first.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-10-28
- Reviewer: Staff
Hitchcockian suspense infiltrates the cloistered contemporary art scene in Pastan’s (Lady of the Snakes) riveting third novel. On her first trip to the Venice Biennale, the unnamed narrator, a naïve young curator, is taken under the wing of a wealthy, well-bred man named Bernard Augustin, who offers her the job of a lifetime at the Nauquasset, his jewel-box museum on Cape Cod, Mass. She seizes the opportunity, but not without some hesitation: all she knows about “the Nauk,” as it’s called, is that its previous curator, an enigmatic Russian beauty named Alena, disappeared two years ago under mysterious circumstances, and that her disappearance broke Bernard’s heart. Like the heroine of du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan’s unnamed protagonist finds herself competing futilely with a ghost. But Pastan refreshes the formula with a new soundtrack: the relentless, haunting roar of the sea—the perfect embodiment of the way Alena’s name echoes throughout the offices and galleries of the Nauk. Upon glimpsing the Atlantic, she says of it: “A pause, and then the beast drew another breath. A restless, endless, living sound. For a moment, as it filled my ears with its slow panting, I knew I had made a terrible mistake.” Flush with erotic intrigues and insights into real, working artists, Pastan has written a smart, chilling thriller that leaves readers thoroughly spooked. (Jan.)
In an art gallery by the sea, a young curator finds her place
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 Alana’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.