Alena

by Rachel Pastan

Alena

Hardcover, 308 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $27.95 | purchase

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NPR Summary

This modern retelling of Daphne du Maurier's classic, Rebecca, finds an aspiring Midwestern assistant curator haunted by the legacy of her predecessor when she takes a job at a cutting-edge art museum on Cape Cod.

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Excerpt: Alena

Alena

Chapter 1

Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again. It was dusk. Somewhere beyond the scrubby hills, full of brambles and beach plums and pine trees bent and twisted by the sea wind like old men, the sun was going down over the bay. From where I stood on the sandy shoulder of the two-lane highway I couldn't see it, but I could feel the damp chill take hold of the afternoon. The light faded from clear gold to misty gray, the way everything fades there: the shingled houses, and the wooden docks, and the leathery skin of the Cape Cod women who live their lives in an abrasive broth of salt and sun. Whose brows furrow early from so much squinting against the light.

There I stood on the edge of the road, blue-black asphalt holding the heat. I could smell the tar melting, smell the pines and the brine of the sea, the restless, pungent, ever-present sea, primordial source of life and cause of so much death: floods and riptides, shipwrecks and suicides. Suddenly the gates began to swing from the two great weathered posts, the lovely gates by Simeon Wexler that Bernard commissioned right at the beginning. Each plank of silvery wood was carved with reliefs of animals, stratum by stratum: starfish and conch along the bottom, fish in the row above, deer and foxes, cats and porcupines at chest level, and along the top, six feet up, the birds of the local woods and seashore, ospreys, finches, swallows, and sandpipers, along with many other species I didn't recognize. I was never much of a naturalist, having early on turned my eye to art. (Though this has changed in recent years, along with so much else, so that today I can follow a path up a Napa hillside and turn to note a swallowtail butterfly or a red-shafted flicker, and even

Bernard can be persuaded to admire a hummingbird balanced in midair above the swaying bee balm in his own small garden.)

Those gates were the first thing I loved about Nauquasset, the first night Bernard brought me there, and in the dream I was jubilant at seeing them again. I put out my hand, half to run my fingers along the contours of an alert field mouse carved into the wood and half to push open the gate. But as I touched it, I saw that the shadows had tricked me. The gate sagged, splintered and defaced, from weary posts held together with iron chains. I cried out in sorrow even as — it being a dream — I passed like water through the barrier and found myself on the other side, walking, as I had so many times, up the rutted lane.

The first quarter mile or so was paved, though the color of the old asphalt had faded to a pale gray. Cracks and potholes fragmented the surface so that it looked in the gathering dusk like a road of rippled water cutting through the pale scrub and dune grass and poison ivy, like a mockery of the bright path moonlight makes on the bay. Then abruptly the shattered pavement ended and the lane changed to crushed shell glinting white against the dull beige of the sand. Even when the Nauk was at its peak, the lane, rising and falling among the dunes, was kept primitive and rough like most of the roads leading out to the bay. When it rained, huge muddy puddles gaped, and visitors in BMWs skirted them gamely — or else wished they'd thought to take their Range Rovers instead. Even in fine weather the pricey underbellies bumped and scraped, and sand got into the upholstery. Repeat visitors learned to leave their cars in the dirt lot by the road and walk. The way rose and fell, rose and fell. After the second rise you could hear the sea. It poured itself onto the breast of the shore and then drew back — gave itself and drew back. It would not stay, and it would not keep away, so that the unhappy shore could never possess, could never forget. Or maybe it was the shore's pale indifference that drove the sea wild, so that every so often she whipped herself into a hurricane or a nor'easter, wreaking her vengeance indiscriminately. Just so, an artist, ignored too long by a callous world, may break into brilliance, or flame up into cynical stuntsmanship, or drop herself like a stone down the dark well of despair.

Once contained by gardeners and muscled maintenance men, the scrub was growing wild. Long arms of bayberry reached in every direction, and the thick trunks of the low pines were as wide around as a man could reach. The sprawling, spreading brush encroached on the road, and the arrowwood and the rugosa roses had grown in my absence to a monstrous size, massing in two high walls of dense foliage. The restless wind rattled the dry leaves, and the crickets sang their elegy to summer. On I walked, my feet slipping in the sand, the grass that grew along the central hump in the lane tickling my bare legs, the sound and smell of the sea leading me on. Pinpricks of stars broke out suddenly in the sky, then were covered over by scudding clouds and strange shadows that might have been night birds or just-awakened bats. And then I rounded a bend and ascended the final rise, and there was the Nauk before me: the long shingled building with its great windows facing the sea. For half a moment time seemed to coil inward like a spring, present and past, dream and reality coming together so that I felt I was seeing the place for the first time again: its serene yet lively beauty, its strange angular shapes made almost natural by the vernacular shingle, the copper weathervane in the shape of a mermaid with a spoon and fork for arms and pert triangular breasts, pointing steadily out to sea.

Then the moon sailed out from behind the tattered clouds, and I saw that the place was abandoned. The roof was stove in, the glass shattered, even the walls blown away in places, revealing the studs and beams. The building looked like a wrecked ship sitting high up on that long dune, a rich merchant vessel perhaps, whose cargo of spices or gold had been doomed from the start.

Reprinted from Alena by Rachel Pastan by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright (c) 2014 by Rachel Pastan

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