In the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells us he takes to sea whenever he feels the onset of “a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul.” I know how he feels. Whenever the frigid funk of February settles in, I, too, yearn to get out of town. This year I have, thanks to two exquisite vehicles of escape fiction. Rachel Pastan’s Alena and Katherine Pancol’s The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles are both smart entertainments perfect for curling up with on a winter’s night. Admittedly, they both fall into that much-disputed category of “women’s fiction,” but I urge male readers not to feel automatically excluded, much as we women readers have learned to gamely step aboard boy’s-only clubs like that of, say, The Pequod.
Speaking of Moby-Dick and opening passages, Daphne DuMaurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca, is a near-rival to Melville’s masterpiece when it comes to the fame of its first line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” You’ll hear an echo of that line at the beginning of Pastan’s Alena because Alena is an inspired reworking of DuMaurier’s Rebecca (which itself was an inspired reworking of Jane Eyre). As in Rebecca, our narrator here is unnamed — a sign of how little sense of self she possesses.
Pastan’s narrator, who describes herself as “a moth,” works as a curator’s assistant at a Midwestern art museum. Accompanying her odious boss to an art festival in Venice, she meets a tormented-but-charismatic gay man named Bernard Augustin, who’s the founder of a renowned contemporary art museum on Cape Cod called “The Nauk.” Faster than you can say, “Maxim de Winter,” the gloomy Bernard and our naive narrator bond platonically over cappuccinos and he invites her to become the Nauk’s new curator. That position is vacant because the former curator, a sleek, celebrated beauty named Alena, mysteriously vanished one night two years earlier, into the dark waters off Cape Cod.
Pastan’s Alena is so eerie and elegantly suspenseful that I could see myself rereading it, the way I reread Rebecca every few years or so. One of Alena‘s distinctive pleasures is its deep familiarity with the contemporary art world, real and imagined: we hear, for instance, about extreme art exhibits, where enormous collages of cotton and bone hang from the ceiling and dead sardines are nailed to gallery walls in great glittering waves of decay. The Nauk museum itself is a brilliant riff on the Gothic mansions of yore: a modernist glass structure built into sand dunes, it conceals a labyrinth of cobwebby secrets and one vengeful female ghost bent on evicting our clueless narrator.
The recently deceased Hollywood star, Joan Fontaine, played the mousy heroine in Hitchcock’s film of Rebecca; I could see a modern-day Joan Fontaine-type playing the heroine of The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles should a film version ever be made. Pancol’s novel was an immediate bestseller when it was published some years ago in Europe and it’s easy to see why: This is a delicious French romp, replete with affairs and wit and screwball plot twists. The story centers on a shy scholar of the Middle Ages named Josephine, whose husband has deserted her and their two daughters in order to run off to Kenya with his sexy mistress, where he’s managing a crocodile farm that supplies illegal skins to China. In order to make ends meet back in Paris, Josephine agrees to a scheme hatched by her wealthy-but-bored older sister: She, Josephine, will ghost write a medieval romance novel while her glamorous sister will do the promotion and get the credit. Of course, the novel becomes a blockbuster, ethical dilemmas ensue, more marriages fall apart, and more affairs are sparked.
The delicious draw of The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is Josephine’s transformation from field mouse to falcon. Not only does she eventually stand up to her domineering sister, but, more dramatically, to her contemptuous teenage daughter — a girl, Josephine realizes, who “has no use for love, tenderness, or generosity, … who faces life with a knife between her teeth.” Though they’re very different in tone, both Alena and The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles are escape fantasies about shy book wormy types triumphing over glossy power divas. I don’t know about you, but that’s a fantasy that pretty much always works for me.