• By Rachel Pastan
  • Riverhead Books
  • 308 pp.

An "Exemplars" book review by Grace Cavalieri


I choose a single novel to begin each year and this year, it is Alena by Rachel Pastan.

At the Venice Bienniale, a young female art historian meets a charismatic gallery owner and is hurried to the role of curator for his Cape Cod Museum “the Nauk.” This is the literal level of the plot but that’s not the best of it. What this book has to offer, beyond story, is what literature holds over film and other arts — how language is revered.Visual arts are about light; music is about feeling; but, prose is about the motion of time and how we see, smell and taste it in passing. Pastan is gifted with sentient and lyrical writing, and she paints a scene exactly.

In teaching writing we say: why send a page out deaf, dumb, and blind? Pastan goes one better — she can describe a beach, rock, and sunset so that you get sand on your feet, stub your toe, while looking up at the sky.

And painterly writing is appropriate because the drama takes place in an art museum and our explorations call in many names/works of modern artists. The average reader will know one out of three of these but it doesn’t matter because Pastan will provoke their works right before your eyes.

Besides events made unpredictable — essential to creating surprise — Pastan establishes a heroine who is vulnerable throughout, so we have someone to root for.  Through the eyes of this Innocent, personalities of the art world emerge like dragons from the sea, and take form as interesting and threatening characters. Of course the person off-stage is always the most interesting one, and this “indirect characterization” is ALENA (the book’s title.) The plot pivots about what became of the former curator at the Nauk, who was believed to have drowned. This is the question pursued during the mystery, investigation, and conclusion. 

Alena is described in maybe more ways than we wish; for how could anyone be so electric, sensual, brilliant, seductive, intuitive, and commanding. We want to slap her. mostly because, although gone, she’s constantly in the face of our heroine — Alena’s a hard act to follow — and almost improbably epitomized — but Alena’s sensibilities serve to tighten the action even from the grave. 

The choices this novelist makes are many. She must bring complex people into her world; find the perfect pitch for her characters; set them up against each other; and then get out of the way. What makes Pastan a good novelist is the rhythm of her thoughts — her trust in her own words — and the ability to fix a scene in the moment it’s happening. I’ve read Rachel Pastan’s other books and she consistently offers us language that elevates the action. She takes risks/opportunities to phrase and control the structure. 

It is noteworthy that Rachel Pastan is the daughter of the well known poet Linda Pastan, and this may be why we first recognize the name; but to say she writes because she’s a poet’s daughter is to say Jean Renoir was a brilliant filmmaker because his father was Renoir the painter.

For readers who love characterizations and language from fresh sources of inspiration, there is good reason to read this book.

Grace Cavalieri produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” celebrating 37 years on air. She holds the 2013 Allen Ginsberg Award, and the 2013 AWP George Garret Award, among honors.

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