Rebecca is atmospheric, spooky, and sometimes downright scary. In it, our unnamed narrator meets the handsome widower Maxim de Winter while in Monte Carlo. They build a sort of friendship which eventually leads to a marriage (there’s no romance involved, as far as I can see), and he takes her back to his estate, Manderley. There she learns more about his first wife Rebecca, who was drowned in a sailing accident, and struggles to find her place as the head of the household. Her problems are magnified by two women: Rebecca, the vivacious, seemingly perfect dead wife, and by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who was devoted to Rebecca. The narrator can’t help but compare herself unfavorably to Rebecca, and she feels sure that Maxim is still in love with his first wife. Eventually her fears about Rebecca overtake her life, and all hell breaks loose. Meanwhile, the menacing Mrs. Danvers lurks in the shadows, pretending to be subservient to the narrator but really undermining her at every turn.
Daphne du Maurier’s books have an almost supernatural quality, and they bristle with tension. While the first half of Rebecca is slow to get going, once I got to the pivotal costume ball scene I literally couldn’t put it down (and keep in mind I’ve read it at least 3 or 4 other times already and knew exactly what was going to happen). That first half, though–one of the narrator’s defining qualities is her ability to get lost in a daydream. These take up a good chunk of the book, and particularly in the first half her dreaming is a bit tedious. At times I wasn’t sure if what I was reading was actually happening, or was just in the narrator’s imagination, but perhaps that was the point. You never quite know where you are with Rebecca, and its characters never quite knew where they were with Rebecca.
One nice thing about a comfortable reread is being able to take your time with the book and look around for things you missed before. This time around, I settled on a name to privately call the second Mrs. de Winter in my head, based on the very few clues that Daphne du Maurier provides. It’s always bothered me that she doesn’t have one, even though it’s actually an important part of the character. She’s so timid and wishy-washy that she barely exists, particularly next to the glittering Rebecca. Still, it pleased me to give her a little more of an identity. Rebecca is all about identity, and memory, and the hold that our past has on us even when we try to leave it behind. The thing about the narrator is that there is just so little of her compared to most of the other characters. Maxim is a Mr. Rochester sort. Mrs. Danvers has her complex, tortured relationship with Rebecca, and Rebecca’s memory. Then there’s Maxim’s bluff, jolly sister, and his loyal and hardworking estate agent. The servants have distinct personalities. The narrator, for all the time we spend in her inner thoughts, really thinks of very little other than Maxim and Rebecca. Her own personality does grow stronger as the book goes on, and presumably if it didn’t end as suddenly as it did we would see even more of a change in her.
I don’t think any of this is by accident. At different times, with different rereads, I’ve thought maybe this was to make it easier for the reader to map themselves onto the narrator and identify with her more fully. I’ve thought maybe it was simply to highlight the differences between her and Rebecca, or to make Rebecca seem even larger than life than she already was. Really, though, I think du Maurier is writing the loss of innocence. The narrator is incredibly young-acting and naive as the book begins, and by the end she’s party to terrifying secrets and crimes. Personally, I’ve never found that kind of story to be very interesting, and so maybe that’s why I like the plot of this book so much more than I ever cared for the narrator or her personal growth.
Having been originally published in 1938 Rebecca has its flaws, particularly in the treatment of a character with a mental handicap. There’s also the awkward bit where a character puts on brownface for a costume party. These are jarring moments that took me out of the story, and that any new reader should probably be prepared for. But I still enjoy reading this book, and it’s one that I’m certain to come back to many more times.
CBR10 Bingo: Listicles. This book is on a million lists, but the one I’m referencing is right there on the cover: the Great American Read.