Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Maybe it stems from all those Nancy Drew mysteries I read in elementary school. . . I still can't put down a suspenseful story, and the dark shadows of this 20th century gothic novel were no exception. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier delivers superb characters, haunting mysteries, and mounting tension to the last page.

I found it interesting that the protagonist remains nameless - the only hint we are given is that she has "a very lovely and unusual name" (24). This is undoubtedly a literary device used deliberately to magnify the presence of the deceased Rebecca, but how I wish I knew the name of the 2nd Mrs. de Winter! As the first-person narrator, her inner thoughts are revealed in the minutest detail, and I found it easy to identify with her fears, joys, triumphs, and disappointments.

Not only are the psychological ramblings expertly crafted, but the writing style is captivating and beautiful, as well. The first sentence of each of the beginning chapters works just perfectly to set the tone and plot. . .

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1) This famous first line is full of portent in and of itself, but after one has completed the novel, it is full of poignant, unforgettable meaning as well.

We can never go back again, that much is certain. (5) Already, I was hooked. What could have happened that made it impossible for them to return to Manderley?

I wonder what my life would be to-day, if Mrs. Van Hopper had not been a snob. (12) Couldn't we all ask a similar 'what if' question about our own lives?
The descriptions of Manderley, the English estate of Maxim de Winter, are so picturesque that one could imagine walking through the Happy Valley or the pristine freshness of Manderley in the Spring:

The daffodils were in bloom, stirring in the evening breeze, golden heads cupped upon lean stalks, and however many you might pick there would be no thinning of the ranks, they were massed like an army, shoulder to shoulder. On a bank below the lawns, crocuses were planted, golden, pink, and mauve, but by this time they would be past their best, dropping and fading, like the pallid snowdrops. The primrose was more vulgar, a homely pleasant creature who appeared in every cranny like a weed. Too early yet for blue bells, their heads were still hidden beneath last year's leaves, but when they came, dwarfing the more humble violet, they choked the very bradken in the woods, and with their colour made a challenge to the sky. (30)

Such beauty makes the skeletons in the closets of this old house stand out in even sharper relief, and we fully sympathize with the young Mrs. de Winter when she realizes that

She was in the house still 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. And in the garden and in the woods, and down in the stone cottage on the beach. Her footsteps sounded in the corridors, her scent lingered on the stairs. The servants obeyed her orders still, the food we ate was the food she liked. Her favourite flowers filled the rooms. Her clothes were in the wardrobes in her room, her brushes were on the table, her shoes beneath the chair, her nightdress on her bed. Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs. de Winter. I had no business here at all. (233)
But this is no ghost story. The mystery of Rebecca's lingering presence is more psychological than actual, but there are some actual facts that bring their own joys and sorrows to Mr. and Mrs. de Winter. I simply had to keep reading, even in small snatches (which is generally not my preferred style), to find out what the next turn of events would entail.

Daphne du Maurier is a masterful writer and story-teller. Next time I need a suspenseful diversion or a touch of gothic mystery, I think I might try My Cousin Rachel or The Scapegoat, both also by du Maurier.


Carrie said...

I read My Cousin Rachel this past year and LOVED it! (My review here: http://www.readingtoknow.com/2008/06/my-cousin-rachel-by-daphne-du-maurier.html )

Absolutely go and read it! You'll find it just as fun and engaging as Rebecca. du Maurier WAS a masterful storyteller!

Beth F said...

I loved Rebecca and have read it several times. I too was a Nancy Drew fan (just reviewed a Nancy Drew graphic novel on my blog) and still love mysteries!

Slow Reader said...

For the sake of argument, I think we have to say that the nameless protagonist made every mistake known to relationships. I also think she would readily admit this is what led to all the tension and suspense in their marriage. Tell your daughters: This is not the way to find a husband. Ask questions! Expect answers! Don't settle! I didn't find Rebecca romantic at all. Sorry. Can't wait to get to book club.

Page Turner said...

Carrie, I'm sure I'll pick up My Cousin Rachel this year - I'll just have find time to fit it in!

Beth F - I read your review, and I'm not sure I would like a graphic novel. Too much of a traditionalist, I guess. I might pick up some old Nancy Drew's for old times sake, though.

Slow Reader - Didn't you ever dream of being swept off your feet by a handsome, rich man? I agree that she made some mistakes - quite frankly, I would have been put off by the "get the toothpaste I like" line - but I understand how she could have been so unpractical too! We'll have to discuss our various ideas of romance at the meeting. (-:

Slow Reader said...

I know there wouldn't be a story if they'd both done everything right, but I think she should have at least held out for an "I love you" before marrying him. Even men who don't mean it will say that to the person they're romancing.

Anonymous said...

great review... and I've linked to it on my review which you can read HERE if you want.