This is the first line of Rachel Pastan’s Alena, which as anyone familiar with the 1938 novel Rebecca knows was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s timeless and classic gothic story of Mrs. Danvers and the two Mrs. de Winters. The first line of Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Like the heroine of Rebecca, the heroine of Alena remains nameless throughout this provocative and spellbinding tale. But rather than take readers to an isolated gray stone mansion on coast of England, Alena takes readers to a progressive art museum on the coast of Massachusetts–where, like the second Mrs. de Winter, the new, young curator finds herself haunted by the legacy of her predecessor.
Here is a mini Q&A with Rachel, though you can listen to our entire interview with her by clicking here.
When you got the phone call announcing you had sold a novel, how did you react?
I was at work, at my day job at the art museum—my novel takes place in an art museum—and I didn’t feel I could tell anybody. I just walked around in a daze for a while and then called my husband and my mother. That made it finally feel real.
Where did you get the idea for the novel?
I had gotten a full-time office cubicle job in my mid-forties, and there were lots of things I didn’t know how to do: use the complicated copy machine, format letters in Microsoft Word. People kept talking to me about the person who’d had the job before me, whose name was Elysa. They would say, “Elysa used to do it this way.” It made me crazy. Then one day I thought, It’s just like the novel Rebecca (in which a new wife is tormented by comparisons to the dead wife), only in the workplace. And then I thought, “That’s a good idea for a novel!”
What scene or bit of dialogue in the book are you most proud of, and why?
I’m very proud of the end of the book. My novel is a version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which lots of people have read and loved. So I had to think of something for my ending that honored Rebecca’s ending, but that was also different and surprising. I always wish I could read the ending when I give presentations at bookstores, but of course you can’t do that.
Who’s your favorite character in the book, and why? Who was the most fun to write?
I love my main character (who doesn’t have a name; actually she does have one, but I’m the only person who knows it), because she keeps her sanity and finds peace, despite everything. I loved writing Agnes, the business manager at the museum, a spooky, large, middle-aged woman—often compared to a crow or some other big bird—who wears black dresses and dyes her hair pink and does her best to make the narrator miserable.
If there was one thing in the main character’s life that you’d like to have in your own life, what would it be? What one thing in the character’s life would you never want?
I’d like to have an apartment in San Francisco with a balcony. I’d never want to have to work for a selfish, shallow, petty boss like Louise!
Linda Goodnight on The Memory House. The long-dead ghosts of a Civil War romance envelop two wounded people whose lives come together at an inn brimming with secrets in Honey Ridge, Tennessee.
MO Walsh on My Sunshine Away. An extraordinary debut set in the late ‘80s that involves a teen raped just yards from her front door; the boy who has a crush on her and tries to solve the crime; and the secrets that hide behind seemingly innocent white picket fences.
Nancy Bilyeau on The Tapestry. The final installment (following The Crown and The Chalice) in Nancy’s Tudor-era trilogy, which puts independent Joanna Stafford in her most dangerous situation yet as she tries to decide who she wants to be: nun, wife, spy, rebel or courtier.
Literary New England cordially invites you to celebrate William Shakespeare’s 451st birthday by attending a lunchtime Tweet Chat with Andrea Chapin, author of the the Shakespeare-inspired historical novel The Tutor!
Above is a handwritten draft of Connecticut native Noah Webster’s “American Dictionary of the English Language,” which was first published 187 years ago today on April 14, 1828.
The book, which Webster worked on for two decades, contained more than 70,000 entries, including 10,000 new words believed to be distinctly American. You can see from those listed here that many of these “Americanisms” came from the Indians, and were learned by Colonial settlers, while others represented young America’s new system of government:
Jill Alexander Essbaum on her striking debut Hausfrau. Described as a ‘modern-day Anna Karenina,’ it’s the story of 30-something Anna, an American living with her husband in Switzerland, who tries to pull her life together and find happiness through a series of new experiences, including German language classes, Jungian analysis and a series of sexual affairs.
Sally Hepworth on The Secrets of Midwives. Neva, a third-generation midwife, is pregnant and determined to hide the baby’s father’s identity. Yet her mother finds it impossible to let this secret rest. For Neva’s grandmother, the situation sends her back 60 years to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s–which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all.
David James Poissant on The Heaven of Animals. Nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, named one of Amazon’s Best Short Story Collections of 2014 and recipient of numerous other awards and recognitions, this debut short story collection explores the tenuous bonds of devotion and family as each of Poissant’s strikingly true-to-life characters are in some way tested by the often-brutal power of love.
We’ll also help you get your read on for next week’s Boston Marathon! We talk with Rachel Cass, head buyer at the Harvard Book Store, about unforgettable running books–fiction, non-fiction and those ideal for children.
Hosted by Cindy Wolfe Boynton and featuring terrific book giveaways! Please join us tonight!
Reading #SiblingsDay Tweets recommending non-fiction parenting books, children’s books and others made me wonder about the books I’ve read about siblings, and 10 almost immediately came to mind as being among the most memorable. They’re all novels. And I’ve listed them here in no particular order, though I always like to give a shout-out for Tell the Wolves I’m Home, which in 2012 I marked as my No. 1-favorite book that year. It’s still among my all-time favorites.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The story of 13-year-old Anna, who decides to sue her parents for the rights to her own body, rather than undergo another surgery to help save the life of her older sister Kate. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate, who has leukemia. A powerful story about what it means to be a good parent, a good sister and a good person. My Sister’s Keeper was also made into a film, but the book and film are quite different.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Lush, mesmerizing and written by The Master Storyteller, it’s the story of a destructive family relationship, where a violent father abuses his wife and children. The story is narrated by one of the Wingo family children, Tom, a former high school teacher and coach who’s out of work after a nervous breakdown. Secrets are slowly revealed as Tom tells about his growing-up years on an isolated Southern island and the fate of his older brother Luke, as well as he tries to help his twin sister Savannah, a poet recovering from a suicide attempt. It’s thick, rich and fantastic. Loved the film, too, but not nearly as much as this magnificent book.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
A portrait of the late-‘80s AIDS epidemic’s transformation of a girl and her family. Before her Uncle Finn died of an illness people don’t want to talk about, 14-year-old June Elbus thought she was the center of his world. A famous and reclusive painter, Finn made her feel uniquely understood, privy to secret knowledge like how to really hear Mozart’s Requiem or see the shape of negative space. When he’s gone, she discovers he had a bigger secret: his longtime partner Toby, the only other person who misses him as much as she does. Her clandestine friendship with Toby—who her parents blame for Finn’s illness—sharpens tensions with her sister, Greta, until their bond seems to exist only in the portrait Finn painted of them. You’ll never forget this book.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Sisterly rivalry is the basis of this marvelously cinematic and sexy retelling of the story of Anne Boleyn. She, her sister Mary and brother George are brought to King Henry VIII’s court as players in their uncle’s plans to advance the family’s fortunes. Mary, the sweet, blond sister, wins King Henry VIII’s favor. But then her dark, clever, scheming sister Anne, insinuates herself into Henry’s graces, becoming his adviser and confidant. Soon she displaces Mary as his lover and begins her machinations to rid him of his wife, Katherine of Aragon. And that’s just the beginning. The Other Boleyn Girl was also made into a film. The film was OK, and I think I’d have liked it better if I’d watched it before I read the book. But when you put the film against the book, there’s really no comparison to which is better. The book won’t ever let you go.
We The Animals by Justin Torres
If you haven’t read this yet, drop everything and get a copy right now. Then sit down and read it. It’s only 128 pages, so you’ll be done in a couple of hours, and they’ll be hours you won’t regret. W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l book narrated by the youngest son of a Puerto Rican father and white mother raising three young sons in upstate New York. The novel is comprised of vignettes that, according to one spot-on reviewer, “paints a large picture through diminutive strokes. … Torres’s prose is fierce, grabbing hold of the reader and allowing him inside the wrenching, whirlwind of a life lived intensely.” Yes, yes, yes.
The Girls: A Novel by Lori Lansens
Conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen are linked at the side of the head, with separate brains and bodies. Born in a small town outside Toronto in the midst of a tornado and abandoned by their unwed teenage mother two weeks later, the girls are cared for by Aunt Lovey, a nurse who refuses to see them as deformed or even disabled. At age 29, Rose, the more verbal and bookish twin, begins writing their story. Through it and Lansens, we see the sisters’ contradictory longing for independence and togetherness. It’s as mesmerizing as the girls themselves.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
A tribute to du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” this gothic story tells the tale of a plain girl wrapped up in the dark, haunted ruins of a house that guards family secrets that are not her own, and that she must discover at her peril. Those secrets include two sisters, a governess, a ghost and more than one abandoned baby. Margaret, the heroine, is a little-known author and bookseller’s daughter who makes a romantic and compelling narrator. I was entranced.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Do I even need to describe it? One of the most beloved books of all time about sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy growing up in New England, and learning the hard lessons of youth and poverty, during the Civil War. If you haven’t read it, you’re really missing out. Run now.
Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova
Really enjoyed this dark, imaginative debut that the publisher accurately describes as “a bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre and A Discovery of Witches.” It’s the story of college freshman Thea Slavin, who leaves her home in Bulgaria to attend Princeton, where she becomes tangled in solving the mystery of her sister’s disappearance and the lives of two handsome, dangerous and secretive brothers. Her desires lead her into a sensual, mythic underworld that’s as irresistible as it is dangerous. “Irresistible” is a good word to describe this book, too.
I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass
Julia is one of my all-time favorite writers. Loved, loved, loved her National Book Award-winning Three Junes and every book that’s followed, including this one about sisters Louisa and Clem and their complicated relationship. Louisa is conscientious and careful, while Clem is a rebel. Theirs is a vivid, heart-wrenching story about what we can and can’t do for those we love.