Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca, first published in 1938, has been on my list of favorites since I was given a copy a decade ago. The book’s biggest weakness is the cover: recent printings are teal and pink with flowing script; other editions feature gold lettering over a red silk background (as shown). It often looks as though it belongs among books with Fabio-esque men on the cover, which makes it a hard sell to friends. But it really, really, is not like that.
At the outset, the unnamed narrator is on holiday as companion to the hilariously gauche Mrs. Van Hopper. While there, she meets Maxim de Winter, Rebecca’s widower. After a brief courtship, the narrator becomes the second Mrs. de Winter and returns with Maxim to Manderley. Since Rebecca’s death, the housekeeper has preserved the house as a shrine and Mrs. de Winter finds herself in competition with Rebecca’s ghost. Being introverted and naive, she believes herself a poor replacement of someone so vibrant, beautiful, and intelligent. The first half of the novel is her struggle to carve a place for herself in the house. It’s hard to describe how engaging and suspenseful this book is without giving away the ending, so you’ll have to take my word that this scant summation of plot doesn’t do the novel justice.
Despite being dead at the novel’s start, Rebecca drives the action through the first half of the novel. The second Mrs. de Winter is a negative image more than a character in her own right—she defines herself not by who she is, but by all the ways she is dissimilar to Rebecca.
She who had sat here before me had not wasted her time, as I was doing. She had reached out for the house telephone and given her orders for the day, swiftly, efficiently, and run her pencil perhaps through an item in the menu that had not pleased her. She had not said, ‘Yes, Mrs. Danvers,’ and ‘Of course, Mrs. Danvers,’ as I had done. And then, when she had finished, she began her letters, five, six, seven perhaps to be answered, all written in that same curious, slanting hand I knew so well. (88)
Though she is knocked down by dozens of small humiliations, she is not pushed so far as to become unlikable or unrelatable. When I read the book now, it is easier to enjoy the first half because I have the end in mind. For a first timer, I imagine her spinelessness would be grating. So many of her uncomfortable moments are caused by her projecting her insecurities into the situation:
. . . it was not until I saw Frith come in and look at me, from behind the Service screen, that I realised it was after ten o’clock. I sprang to my feet at once, feeling guilty, and apologised for sitting there so late, and he bowed, saying nothing, very polite, very correct, but I caught a flicker of surprise in his eyes. I wondered if I had said the wrong thing. Perhaps it did not do to apologise. Perhaps it lowered me in his estimation. I wished I knew what to say, what to do. I wondered if he suspected, as Mrs. Danvers had done, that poise, and grace, and assurance were not qualities inbred in me, but were things to be acquired, painfully perhaps, and slowly, costing me many bitter moments. (81-82).
He’s probably just surprised that she continues to act like a guest in her own home. Much of the novel’s suspense does not stem from the mystery that gradually unfolds, but from her continued discomfort. Just as she cannot settle into the house, a reader is unable to settle into the story—it’s clear that something is about to happen. I wrote about suspenseful unease in reviewing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but the pacing is much slower here. If you can have patience through the first half, you will be well rewarded in the second when the characters take on new angles. None of them have much nuance in the beginning: Maxim is sober and direct; Mrs. de Winter is clueless; Mrs. Danvers (the housekeeper) is villainous; Rebecca is an intelligent beauty. The appeal of the novel is that, as it progresses, these characters are transformed. Du Maurier’s pacing is excellent; when everything is revealed, you are able to see how the groundwork for the ending was laid in the opening chapters.
Looking back, I realize this review is so vague as to be almost useless, but this is one of those books that you really can’t know too much about before you start reading. Many apologies, but when you read it, you’ll understand.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) If you’re the kind of person to be embarrassed by the cover, make a paper-bag cover.