Saturday, March 15, 2014

Comparing original to new...Rebecca v. Alena

When I was in high school I actually listened to my father (who was also my high school librarian) one day when he recommended the book Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I fell in love with du Maurier's book immediately. In fact, I loved it so very much I became penpals with the author. The most pressing question I had for her was the protagonist's first name. As I read I was constantly watching for her name to be mentioned. She was always referred to as "the second Mrs. de Winter". I sent my letter to Ms. du Maurier asking if the second Mrs. de Winter was actually a Rebecca as well. Her response ~ she had never really considered it and could never come up with a name that suited her for the heroine. She also felt the character did not need a name since she was narrating the story. After reading Alena, I believed Ms. Pastan had overlooked this major characteristic of Rebecca by naming the narrator in her book Cara, which truly confused me since I had read in a number of places, "our heroine - who remains nameless, like the heroine of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca."  However upon writing to the author (very much like my relationship with Ms. Du Maurier, but with e-mail) I learned the word cara is Italian for "dear" or "darling". I am so glad I contacted Ms. Pastan in order to clear up my confusion because it struck such a chord in me when I first read the word.

written by Rachel Pastan

Almost thirty years after reading it for the first time, Rebecca remains my second favorite book, the first being Gone with the Wind. When my husband came across Alena on his recent trip to Philadelphia during the American Library Association's Midwinter Conference he immediately grabbed a copy and had it autographed by the author (Yes, I do have an amazing husband!) I started reading it as soon as I finished the book I was in the middle of when he returned. I was so excited, but a little concerned because how could anyone actually try to mirror a classic?

So, I'm not going to say it surpasses Rebecca, but Ms. Pastan did an interesting job of thinking outside the box when she outlined the story. One has to remember the definition of homage - "something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another - tribute". I have to say the author does this very well.

A number of variations and similarities in the books can be made.

  • For instance, the protagonist, a curatorial assistant at the Midwestern Museum of Art, travels with Louise Haynes, the curator, to Venice for the Biennale in Alena. Where the main character in Rebecca travels to Monte Carlo as a paid companion to Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper. 
  • When Ms. Pastan's character meets Bernard Augustin they explore art together, while in du Maurier's classic the protagonist creates art - her drawings as she sits overlooking the Mediterranean while Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter courts her. 
  • Alena's heroine and Bernard do not have a romantic relationship. She becomes the curator for Bernard's Nauquasset Contemporary Museum a "very small...vanity museum", known as the Nauk. As is obvious in the character's name, the "second Mrs. de Winter" and Maxim do have a romantic relationship. Following a two week courtship the main character marries Mr. de Winter and they travel to Manderley.
  • Agnes, the business manager at the Nauk, is a great parallel character to Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper at Manderley. Both charcters remain extremely loyal to the main character's predecessor in each book, undermining and subtly suggesting each could never truly fill the shoes of Alena or Rebecca.
  • Another great parallel is a short scence, which might be overlooked by some readers is the visit Barbara (Bernard's sister) and Alena's heroine go on to meet Willa Somerset, referred to as "Aunt Willa" although I could not find any reference to an actual family connection. She not only serves on the museum's board, but also donated the land on which it sits. Rebecca's heroine travels with Beatrice (Maxim's sister) to visit Gran, their ailing grandmother. Both of these senior characters become disoriented during the visit, asking for Alena and Rebecca, respectively.
I will not ruin the storyline of Alena for those of you who will want to pick this book up to read. Like Rebecca there is mystery to Alena's death. Some reviewers have been extremely harsh with their comparisons of the two books. I will simply say Ms. Pastan has truly created an homage to Rebecca in the truest sense of the word. She has created her own story in which similarities can be seen throughout. I would recommend Alena, not only for the resemblance to one of my favorite books, but also because it is a delightful read. I'm sure those who love Rebecca will be see many instances of equivalence, however Alena can stand on its own merits as a rainy day, weekend, or beach book.

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