Monday, November 23, 2009

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

I find that suspense is a thing difficult to find done well. All too often suspense, whether it be on books, in film, or worst of all on television, seems formulaic and hollow. In how many episodes of Monk or CSI are you able to guess the killer within the episode's first fifteen minutes? If you assumed that House's patients all had a rare parasite, wouldn't you be right, like, ninety percent of the time? Are you ever really shocked or surprised?

All of which makes Rebecca all the more awesome--it actually has its "holy shit" moments, including one that takes everything you thought about the novel and flips it on its head. Everything you thought you knew about Rebecca, after its first two acts, turns out to be wrong, and yet everything leading up to the reveal makes perfect sense--like The Sixth Sense. You know, where Bruce Willis turns out to be a man. I might be thinking of The Crying Game, come to think of it. And then, Rebecca flips everything again, and then a third time. None of these big reveals are expected, and yet all of them make perfect sense.

The story begins with an young, unnamed girl working as a companion--a sort of half-friend half-secretary--for an older American woman in Monte Carlo, where they meet Maxim de Winter, a handsome aristocrat who has recently lost his wife in a drowning accident. Maxim and the girl fall quickly in love, and are as quickly married, and the girl becomes the mistress of Maxim's famous family mansion, Manderley. But she finds that, as she feared, she is unprepared to preside over such a household, and finds that she cannot fill the shoes of Maxim's late wife.

The wife, of course, is Rebecca--a brilliant touch, of course, refusing to even give the girl the title of her own book. There was no one like Rebecca: accomplished, independent, in control, and beautiful--"the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life"--one character remarks. The girl, by contrast, is kind-hearted but meek and eternally out of place; she resides not at Manderley but in her own mind. She is constantly imagining would-be encounters or the unheard conversations of others, in all of which she is compared unfavorably to Rebecca. Of course, she has justification, particularly from Mrs. Danvers, the chief house servant who was devoted to Rebecca and, despite her outward deference, the girl suspects of plotting against her out of fealty to her former mistress. Even Maxim's senile grandmother seems to want Rebecca back, driving the girl to abject misery:

He did not belong to me at all, he belonged to Rebecca. He still thought about Rebecca. She was in the hosue s till, as Mrs Danvers had said; she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall. Even in the little flower-room, where her mackintosh still hung... Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs de Winter. I had no business here at all. I had come blundering like a poor fool on ground that was preserved. "Where is Rebecca?" Maxim's grandmother had cried. "I want Rebecca. What have you done with Rebecca?"

If the girl struggling with the expectations of Rebecca's legacy comprised the entire book, it would have been good, an excellent character study or psychological novel. But I'm happy to say it's actually much better than that.

In many ways, Rebecca is something of a potboiler--or perhaps that's too negative? It has a pulp quality, a sensationalism that made it a bestseller when it was published in 1938. It's plot-heavy, and teasing larger thematic observations from it isn't fruitless, but neither is it the best way to appreciate it. But it's surprisingly intense and suspenseful, and well-plotted. There is a reason that most bestsellers are quickly forgotten--they suck--but Rebecca is still fairly popular, and deservedly so.


Christopher said...

Fun fact: The Nazis used this novel for a book code. One copy was discovered on the person of Laszlo de Almasy, the "English Patient."

Amanda said...

I just read this for the first time in October and loved it, potboiler or not. The writing was just fantastic.