Alena: A Novel

Alena: A Novel

by Rachel Pastan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594632471
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/23/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.90(h) x 2.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Rachel Pastan is the author of two previous novels and has won numerous prizes for her short fiction. A member of the core faculty of the Bennington Writing Seminars, she is also editor-at-large for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Pastan lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

Copyright © 2014  by Rachel Pastan

Although a general impression of those days stays with me—a mood, a muffled, foggy adumbration despite the fine weather—I remember very little of how I actually spent my time once I got into my office, which didn’t feel like my office at all. Always when I went through the door in the morning, there was a moment when I had to force myself to remember that I wasn’t trespassing, and it was always a relief to find the gray chair empty and to see the pool of cold sunshine on the floor and my little stack of notepads and pens on the empty shelf where I had left them, as though I half expected someone to have moved them in the night. But what I did when I sat behind that finlike desk I can neither remember nor quite imagine, though I know I must have sat there for hours at a time.

I do remember that from time to time I went to the exhibition wing to walk through the galleries—to stand in them, measuring the walls with my eyes, and to feel the way one space moved into the next: what the space itself suggested, accommodated, perhaps denied. I loved those galleries immediately—inordinately—and every day I came to love them more. I loved the way the outside light fell, by way of the colonnade—obliquely, delicately, creating a golden glow that invested the rooms, even when empty, with something of the vibrancy of art. Visiting at different times of day, sometimes staying a long while, I learned how that glow brightened over the course of the morning and into the afternoon; how different walls lightened and dimmed as the hours passed; where the shadows collected. I loved the way the sound of the waves cast a mood, varying as the weather varied, so that both sound and sight brought the landscape of the outer world into the galleries. Somehow, instead of the sensation of time standing still, which I had felt so often in the great museums of the world, here at the Nauk the movement of time was more present to me than it had ever been before, as though I could feel the earth turning slowly under my feet.

From the bright colonnade running the length of the galleries, one looked out and down not only on the surging ocean and the wide stretch of beach, but also onto the dunes themselves, where the pale green beach grass waved, interspersed with black patches of dried sea- weed and large shells and the long swathes of weathered fencing intended to prevent erosion. Although the galleries were on the first floor, from this side—the back, ocean-facing side of the building—we seemed to be quite high up. As I began to understand that the Nauk was built into a hill, I wondered what was underneath the galleries. Storage rooms? A shop? Boilers and pipes and dehumidifying compressors? There must be stairs somewhere, I thought, leading down. And one day, perhaps my second week at the Nauk, I noticed for the first time a door at the far end of the colonnade. It was an odd sort of door, made to blend into the wall, with a C-shaped recessed handle instead of a knob. I went over to it and pulled, but, like so many other doors here, it was locked.

What a mix of emotions I felt at that moment surging and frothing through me the way the ocean surged and frothed on the beach below. What was I doing here in this place of empty rooms and locked doors? Why had Bernard brought me here only to strand me as though on a sandbar while he ran off in pursuit of money, or distraction, or sex, or whatever it was that kept him moving, as though he were a molecule of ocean water rather than a man? Why had I not been able to so much as get a front door key? Why couldn’t I stand up to Agnes, or even to Sloan, to insist on a key, or a desk with drawers, or a detailed copy of the budget, or Alena’s Rolodex, which had, according to Agnes, been temporarily misplaced? Something was wrong with me. I was the curator, it should have been simple. I shut my eyes against the tears that began to fall—more salt water in this watery world—angry at myself for crying but too despondent to stop, when I had the sudden, sickening conviction of being watched.

And when I opened my eyes, there was Agnes, standing at the far end of the colonnade.

She was dressed, as always, in black, her hem just brushing the tops of her boots. She had changed the pink streaks in her glossy hair for electric blue, and she stood fixing me with her stony eyes, her head cocked to one side like a giant crow. I blinked at her, determined not to show how much she had frightened me. I had no idea how long she had been there. “I was wondering where you were,” she said. “You weren’t in your office.”

“I was looking at the galleries,” I said. “It’s so important to get to know the space.” I sniffed hard and wiped my fist across my nose.

“It looks to me,” Agnes observed, “like you were trying to open that door.”

I turned back to the door, which stood blankly, blandly shut, like a wall of snow. “I just happened to see it,” I said. “I never noticed it before, somehow, the way it’s built into the wall.”

She moved toward me, her high-heeled boots making surprisingly little noise on the hard floor. “Of course,” she said, “it’s designed not to be noticed, isn’t it? The eye—most people’s eyes—slips right over it. But you have sharp eyes, don’t you? Eyes that have been trained to notice. That’s what they teach you at curator school, isn’t it?”

I nodded, though it wasn’t. The curatorial studies programs were about art history, and theory, and individual research—presumably one knew how to see already. Not that skills didn’t get honed there. Not that there weren’t many kinds of seeing. “Of course, I only went to com- munity college,” Agnes said, stepping closer, “but I notice things too.”

My mouth was dry. She continued toward me down the hall, growing larger, blocking out the light, her starburst of keys jangling on their leather strap.

“Do you want to know what’s behind there?” she asked. She was so close that I could smell her: the burnt chemical odor of her hair, and the sweetness of incense, and the pungency of old cigarette smoke and cloves.

I shrugged. I didn’t care what was behind the door, not anymore. I wanted to get away from her, but I knew I had to stay.

“Why don’t I show you.” Agnes drew nearer still. Heat radiated from her body in the cool hall. She was standing far too close to me. I took a step back and she took one forward, and now I was pressed up against the door. There was nowhere to go. She chose a key from her dangling bundle and shook the whole bunch at me until my slow brain understood that she wanted me to move aside.

The key turned silently in the lock. Agnes put her hand out and pushed the door inward, motioning for me to go first. When I hesitated, she smiled. “Don’t be frightened,” she said. “This is the way to Alena’s rooms. You didn’t know she had her own special rooms in the building, did you? In case she didn’t want to go home. Or if there was someone she wanted to entertain privately. Or if she and Bernard wanted a quiet place, you know, to have a few drinks.”

I moved through the door into the shadowy stairwell lit by dim LEDs on the walls, small square fixtures arranged in a cascade of staggered columns following the spiraling stairs down. The stairs themselves were steep and slippery. “Careful,” Agnes said. “You don’t want to fall.” Down we went. I could smell earth, and damp, and something else, an overripe odor I couldn’t identify, like the smell of my mother’s kitchen when she was making jam. At the bottom of the stairs, another door with another lock. I don’t know how Agnes found the right key in the near dark. Maybe she knew them all by touch.

Beyond the door was a long low-ceilinged room. Old Oriental rugs in shades of garnet and pearl and sapphire stretched across the floors, some with patterns of gardens and others with spirals or paisleys. Low velvet couches sat plush, brushed, draped with scarves, and a square black-and-gold table supported cut-glass candy dishes and crystal vases and amber eggs and ivory figurines and malachite lamps with green silk shades. The walls were covered with what looked like tangles of seaweed, the thick, dark green, rubbery kind they call dead man’s fingers. You would have thought it was the worst kind of décor for a room so close to the ocean, subject to damp and mildew, but the museum’s climate control must have extended here too, for it was cool and dry, not even any cobwebs in the corners or dust on the crystal rims of the dishes or the smooth head of the plump jade monk. Crimson roses bloomed in a bowl, not a petal drooping, as though they had been arranged that very day. And along the wall that faced the bay, sliding glass doors, each like a living canvas, seemed carefully composed: pale green beach grass at the bottom, tossing in the strong breeze; then a wide strip of shifting blue-gray and green-gray that was the ocean; and above that, the robin’s-egg blue of the sky stippled with clouds. The air was still, but the sound of the ocean was like a living thing in the room: the long, low gathering of the swell; then the pause, like a suspended breath; and at last, after the aching delay, the falling off, the tumbling, the heaving collapse of the mercurial wave, foaming white onto the steadfast shore.

“It’s a beautiful room, isn’t it?” Agnes said. Again she fixed me with those sharp eyes, standing lightly like a big black bird on the glowing carpet, swinging her galaxy of keys.


“Yes,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”

Agnes began to glide around the room, her fingers drifting down to straighten a violet glass dish that didn’t need straightening, to pluck a paling petal from a rose in the bowl, to graze the bald head of the jade monk with her fingertips. “Have you ever seen a room like this?” she asked. “Alena had extraordinary taste, didn’t she? She’d walk through a market in Istanbul or Tangier, and she’d see the one thing worth having.” She reached up and touched her own dangling earring, shards of ruby-colored pendants arrayed in tapering rows. “She brought these back from Malta for me,” she said. “I used to fill my holes with studs and rusty safety pins. Then Alena said, ‘Agnes, why do you want to wear all that junk? Aren’t the holes themselves more beautiful than that fistful of cheap hardware?’ And she gave me these. ‘Better one perfect thing,’ she would say, ‘than a hundred ordinary ones!’ And then she would laugh, because one perfect thing was never enough for her. She always wanted ten perfect things—a hundred—why not? When they called out to her the way they did, as though begging her to choose them. ‘Aggie,’ she used to say, ‘it’s like they have voices only I can hear. They cry out to me like lost souls. Who am I to turn them away?’ It was the same when we were kids at Woolworth’s and she’d come home with the best nail polish colors, the best lipsticks, hidden inside her shirt. ‘They were calling out to me,’ she’d say. ‘I couldn’t let them languish!’ No one ever caught her. She was always special, even then. She had a kind of glow that made you want to be near her. People were always giving her gifts—men were. Even when she was twelve. Women too. Once we were walking down the street and a woman in a fur coat gave her a diamond clip. Out of the blue! This will look pretty in your beautiful hair, the woman said. And it did. Alena wore it for a few days and then, when she got tired of it, she gave it to me.”

All the time she spoke, Agnes kept her eyes fixed on my face, but I couldn’t tell if she was seeing me or not. Out the glass doors, the ocean rose and fell—the same ocean you could see from upstairs, or outside, but it looked different here, darker and wilder, as though somehow Alena’s spirit was touching everything, even the view, intensifying it, perfecting it—as though things themselves could be changed merely by being chosen.

“I guess you’re wondering why I’m telling you this.”

I shook my head. I knew why, even then, young as I was and afraid of her. I knew she was telling me because she had to tell me, showing me because she had to show someone. This room was her work as much as it was Alena’s. Alena might have made the room, but Agnes had conserved it—exhaustively, painstakingly—with all the care, patience, attention, exertion at her disposal. It was a task literally without end. Did the room exist if no one saw it? And if it didn’t exist, did Agnes?

“I remember the last time we were together in this room,” Agnes said. “Just before Venice. She was looking forward to the trip. She loved to travel, loved to dress up, to see and be seen. It was extraordinary that she stayed in Nauquasset as long as she did. She could have gone anywhere: New York, London, Zurich. But she stayed. She used to say, Where else could I have freedom like this? Where else could I answer to no one? Of course, nominally she answered to Bernard, and to the board. But Bernard never said no, and the board did whatever he told them to. And she loved the ocean! She swam like a fish, she could have swum to the Vineyard and back if she wanted to. And she sailed all the time, she was a wonderful sailor. Even the wind does my bidding, Aggie, she used to say.”

“Yes,” I said. I could picture it: Alena perched like a Nereid on a white boat, sheet in one hand and rudder in the other, her long ivory limbs impervious to the sun.

“You can almost see her, can’t you—here in these rooms?” Agnes said. “I can. I can see her sitting just there, on the sofa, her legs tucked under her, talking to me that last night. The night I was telling you about.”

I could, I could see it too. Alena sitting there, just as Agnes described.

“It was very late. I had finished her packing for her, even though she wasn’t leaving for another two days. I was taking a trip too, to visit my mother who was ill, and I had to leave before she did. But I always did her packing. It was good fortune that our trips overlapped, that if I had to be away, it would be mostly when she was too. I didn’t have to worry she would need something and I wouldn’t be there.

“Alena had just come back from a swim. She liked to swim at night off the beach here, she knew the tides and the currents. It’s a quiet stretch, no one ever bothered her. And then she’d come back up to shower and dress. Sometimes she’d sleep here if she didn’t feel like going home.”

I wondered where home was, where Alena had lived, what had happened to her house. I wondered what had happened to Agnes’s mother, whether she had gotten well.

“She sat right there,” Agnes repeated. “Her hair was wet, a dark fountain, and her skin glowed. 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—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.”

I put my hand to my chest. My own breathing was coming and going, fast and shallow as though I had a fever. I thought of Marina Abramovic´ lying still as a viewer cut her with a knife and licked the blood; of Catherine Opie inscribing her wish on her body in scars; of Carolee Schneemann choreographing a dance with naked bodies and raw meat. I was starting to feel uncomfortably warm. The room was crowded with objects: shiny, heavy, blind forms that seemed to me suddenly like living things turned to stone. I fanned my face with my hand, listening to the waves. Agnes was talking, her voice droning like a hornet. I could hear everything she said, but the words seemed to float into my mind from a great distance. “The last show had just closed,” she said. “Dessa Michaels, the dissection pieces. It got a lot of attention, Alena should have been pleased. But she had decided it was too distanced. Too abstracted. The thing itself was eclipsed, she said. She said that a lot about art that didn’t live up to her standards—The thing itself is eclipsed! She wanted to strip it bare, whatever it was. Like staring into the sun, or looking at the naked face of God! That was what she wanted—art so potent it would make the heart stop. I wish I could die from art, she used to say. Die from art! The ultimate consummation.”

She paused. The room buzzed with her words, my ears rang with them. I needed to sit down.

“You look pale,” Agnes said, watching from her height as I lowered myself onto the velvet sofa.

“I’m fine.”

“Probably you’re tired. You get faint, maybe you’re anemic. You should make sure you get enough rest.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Don’t worry about me.”

“Does talking about art like that upset you?”

“No. Of course not.”

She sat down beside me. “Do you like it too, then? Might we see some shows about the body from you?” The derision in her voice was unmistakable.

“I like all kinds of art.”

Heat shimmered off her in waves, as if from pavement on a summer afternoon. “We sat right here,” she said. “She asked me to brush her hair. I always used to brush Alena’s hair, and braid it or put it up, from when we were kids. She had beautiful hair, thick and black and slippery as obsidian. Volcanic glass. I could French braid it by touch in the dark. So I did. I brushed it out for her, and she said, ‘Aggie, I don’t even know why I’m going. Maybe I’ll just change my mind and stay.’

“‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Stay. Why should you go? What’s there that’s better than what you have here?’ I meant it too. Art-world celebrities, super- rich collectors, jealous curators, everybody trying to look more successful than they were. Why did she need that? Why did she want it?

“But she always went, she was restless, that was part of who she was. But she always came back.” The ocean was restless too, surging forward and falling back, always clamoring for the shore but unable to possess it, like a ghost lover whose arms drift through the body of the beloved.

Always came back, Agnes said. But not this time. Did Agnes decline to believe that? Did she refuse, like the mother of a soldier reported missing in action, to look death in the face? Was that why she kept the rooms like this, immaculate? Did she believe Alena would return any day—any hour—and the Nauk would be ready, waiting for her like a bridegroom? “It’s been two years,” I said, or thought I said, but my syllables, like motes of dust, floated away and disappeared.

Agnes leaned close. “I’m telling you this because you need to under- stand.” Her words spiraled down through my ear, their tiny vibrations reverberating like thunder in the dark. “You’re only temporary here.”

What People are Saying About This

Howard Norman

An exquisitely disturbing novel about erotic and artistic obsession, ALENA not only draws forth Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca with the vivid immediacy of a séance, but also contains elements of a ghost story that Henry James would have recognized as a map of our secret motivations. The strange and wonderful story Pastan tells does what only the best writing can do: allows you to look at the world differently. --Howard Norman, author of Next Life Might Be Kinder

From the Publisher

Praise for Alena
“Luminous and sure-footed…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.” —The Washington Post
“Perfect for curling up with on a winter’s night…so eerie and elegantly suspenseful that I could see myself rereading it, the way I reread Rebecca every few years or so.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR

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Alena: A Novel 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Luckygranadma More than 1 year ago
I do not understand those negative reviews, I loved this book and was so sorry when it ended. Great plot, great  character development. I finished this book about three weeks ago and I miss those characters a lot. I feel as If I did not see someone close to my heart for a while and need to call them and talk to them. I highly recommend this book and would be curious as to what other reviews will be posted. I love the book Rebecca, but I am sure it Was not this author's intention to be compared to it. Each of these books is great in it's own way. Please read it ;)
Almost-Tica More than 1 year ago
I really did not like this book and that's putting it mildly.  After the hype about it being an "inspired re-staging" of the classic novel Rebecca, I expected better writing and a more interesting plot.  Thinly veiled plagiarism didn't do the job.  The characters weren't even interesting and the entire storyline dragged and lagged and limped its way to an abrupt ending that suggested the author herself because too bored to write more.  Writing a novel is hard work, but still in all, this author wasn't, isn't, and never will be a Daphne Du Maurier, and it does neither of these people credit to compare them.
LaurieC3 More than 1 year ago
With intriguing descriptions of art and equally sharp-eyed observation of people, this page-turner of a novel is also an homage to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The novel explores the feelings of the young, female narrator as a strained and awkward newcomer; she is the newly installed young curator at the Nauquasset, a museum of contemporary art on Cape Cod. Mingling with the salt air of the Cape is the Gothic air of mystery surrounding the disappearance of the enigmatic Alena, the museum's former curator, who went missing and is presumed dead three years before. Recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very disappointing. Rebecca is one of my favorite books. I have read it so many times and have watched the movie many more. Daphne Du Maurier captures the haunting of the young wife by the ghost of Rebecca. Alena dragged and I could not understand where the author was going with her story line. The only thing that the author comes close to Rebecca is the opening line from Rebecca. After that it was all down hill. Who ever told the author that she should write this book, should be questioned. Don't waste your time with this book, read the orginial.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This author has completely failed in her attempt to "re-stage" the beautiful classic, Rebecca. Pastan's characters are boring, lack dimension, heart, and likability. It was impossible to form an attachment to them;. they are merely stereotyped cardboard representations of the beautifully complex du Maurier characters. Pastan gets lost in overly worded descriptions, using her verbosity to hide the weakness in her writing. The tempo of the novel is painstakingly slow with little conflict development and the lack of creativity and imagination makes it impossible to sustain interest . I am not sure why a writer would attempt to copy a classic.; Pastan did so in a clumsy, uninspired way. I gave up after page 117. Reading time is too precious to waste on poorly written imitation. Alena is not an homage to Rebecca, It is a disaster. Try Alice Hoffman, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchette, Amy Tan, Lisa See.
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