In her luminous and sure-footed new novel, “Alena,” Rachel Pastan has taken on a daunting task: borrowing the basic story of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” transporting it to contemporary times and setting it in an isolated art museum on Cape Cod.
It’s a tricky business, reimagining a much-loved work of literature. All of us readers carry around a list of fictional worlds we’d like to revisit, but when another author offers us the chance by taking on our favorite stories — reshaping the narrative, shifting the viewpoint — we tend to be skeptical. We don’t want it to be too close to the original, but it can’t go too far afield, either. And “Rebecca,” the 1938 gothic novel about a young woman who can’t seem to escape the shadow of her husband’s mysterious first wife, is a formidable work. It’s not flawless, but it’s the kind of book that acquires a golden haze in readers’ memories. Those of us who first encountered it when we were young have never forgotten it.
So Pastan’s readers — some of us, anyway — are going to be starting out with a chip on our shoulders. We’ll reserve judgment but turn pages warily. Go ahead, then, we think. Try to make it your own. But don’t forget there’s a piece of it that already belongs to me.
Luckily for us, Pastan navigates these treacherous waters with even-handed grace. Right from the beginning, she shows that she intends to honor her source material but won’t be a slave to it. Her opening line, “Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again,” does not quite echo du Maurier’s famous “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It’s not the same — not rhythmically, not syllabically, not semantically. It’s not what I’d expected, not what I’d been looking forward to. But by the second page, I’d forgotten that I’d wanted anything different.
Pastan’s unnamed — of course! — narrator is a young Midwestern girl, right out of curatorial school. She has an uninspiring job at a mediocre museum, but she lucks out when her boss, the unpleasant and pretentious Louise, takes her to Venice for the Biennale. It’s here that she meets Bernard Augustin, owner of the Nauk, a tiny but prestigious art museum built on a Cape Cod sand dune. And it’s here that she learns the story of his lifelong friend and business partner, the mysterious Alena, who disappeared (presumed drowned) two years earlier.
The match our heroine makes at the Venice Biennale is not a romantic one. Bernard is gay, and in any case, the opportunities a young woman might hope to find on her first trip abroad are different now from they were in 1938. A dream job, a kindred spirit? A distinguished mentor who admires you for your mind? It’s more than our narrator had dared to imagine.
Bernard is not very much like Maxim de Winter, but Pastan’s narrator is just as hopeful and uncertain as du Maurier’s; Pastan captures the horrid feeling of being young and inadequate in sophisticated society. The narrator’s budding friendship with Bernard — they seem alone, in all of Venice, in sharing an idealistic vision about art — is just as satisfying as the courtship in “Rebecca.” So when “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” becomes “I’m offering you a job, cara,” we may miss the playful spark, but the sense of rescue from a mediocre future survives intact.
Of course, the story truly begins when Bernard takes our narrator to the Nauk and then promptly withdraws, leaving her alone with a cast of characters whose attitudes range from politely distant to hostile.
They all seem to know more about Bernard (and Alena) than she does. The building tension and the unfolding plot are compelling, and Pastan’s prose is lush but not showy. Her characters’ questions about what it means to live an artistic life are thought-provoking and fresh.
Yes, there are occasional overheated moments and one or two minor characters who narrowly skirt the edge of stereotype, and the ending is abrupt. But . . . do I have to say it? All of these things are true of “Rebecca,” as well. The triumph of Pastan’s story is that it manages to be more than a companion piece to du Maurier’s. “Alena” proves itself an intriguing and substantial novel on its own merits, while still offering the kind of gothic plunge we remember and crave from our younger years.
Parkhurst is the author of the novels “The Dogs of Babel” and “The Nobodies Album.” Rachel Pastan will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW on Monday at 7 p.m.