Friday, June 17, 2016

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand-in-hand, and the past and the future mattered not at all. This was secure, this funny little fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again…For them it was just after lunch, quarter-past-three on a haphazard afternoon, like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.

I first read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca when I was in middle school. I remember enjoying it at the time, but upon re-reading it as an adult, I wonder how much of the book I really understood at thirteen. On the surface, Rebecca is part gothic romance and part mystery, but it delves a little deeper than either of those genres usually allows. Our unnamed narrator meets the dashing widow Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo; the narrator is there as a "companion" for a wealthy American--a job that seems to entail eating meals with the old woman and taking her verbal abuse in stride--and de Winter is vacationing, seemingly to recover from the recent loss of his wife. On their last day in Monte Carlo together, Maxim unexpectedly proposes and the narrator is snatched out of a depressing life of service and thrown into the deep end of running Manderly, a large British estate in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim's dead wife. 

Rebecca, though dead, is a brighter, more vivid character for most of the novel than the narrator. Not only is Rebecca named and the narrator anonymous (we know only that her name is "very lovely and unusual"), but Rebecca's possessions fill Manderly, her style and opinions are referred to constantly. The narrator (and the reader) are constantly reminded of her poise, her beauty, her impeccable taste. This helps set up the tension and suspense, but it also makes the narrator that much more human. She spends the whole novel competing with a ghost, judging herself against her and worrying about how others are judging her. While I think I enjoyed the tension more when I first read it, I really appreciated the neurotic insecurities this time around. Rebecca provides a nice metaphor for the prototypical woman we all fall short of, and I felt for the narrator as she worked through the mess she got herself into. 

The gothic creepiness of the book is also really fun. Everything from the setting to the structure builds the sense of horror, and the descriptions and pacing are almost cinematic. The book opens with an extra gothic description of Manderly from a dream:
At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. 
Nature is constantly creeping into the edges of this novel, and du Maurier uses it effectively to build suspense and tension; scenes that would otherwise be bucolic and peaceful always have a detail that's just a little bit off--a color that's a little too rich, a scent that's a little too overpowering. 

The novel moves at a brisk clip with some easily navigable flashbacks and some Nancy Drewesque chapter endings that kept me hooked. The mystery of Rebecca's death takes most of the novel to resolve itself (no spoilers...but you definitely don't see it coming), but even more engaging were the narrator's foibles (some darker than others) as she tries to assume her role as head of Manderly. Watching her simultaneously try to take Rebecca's place and figure out what happened to Rebecca is totally riveting. When the book ended I wanted more!

Overall, Rebecca is a great read. The suspense and the mystery are enough in and of themselves, but the narrator provides a character who is flawed and interesting enough to keep you invested and put a little more meat on the story than I usually expect from murder mysteries. 


Christopher said...

Love this book.

Brent Waggoner said...

I love Rebecca. It's probably in the top 10 most enjoyable of everything I've read on this blog. Her other stuff is worthwhile too.