I don’t give much thought to the order in which I read books, but I’m starting to realize that the order in which I read an author’s books shapes my opinion of that author and their style. Having read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I couldn’t repress a number of expectations for My Cousin Rachel. The book encouraged my expectations by establishing a tone that is similar to du Maurier’s others. The tension built unbearably as I read and I turned the pages faster and faster, digging for the clue to kindle The Big Reveal, but it never came. I was stunned to turn the last page and realize the story had ended. On some level, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn prepped me for a tied-off ending. Ambiguity is well-used in My Cousin Rachel, but it never occurred to me that the central mystery would remain unsolvable. If it had, I might have read more slowly to better soak up every nuance and red herring.
Philip’s older cousin, Ambrose, whom he loves like a brother/father, leaves for Italy. Philip doesn’t hear from Ambrose for a long while, but is shocked to learn that Ambrose has abandoned his bachelor lifestyle and married Rachel. Ambrose writes about her in glowing terms, but Philip is unsettled. His initial concern is for his place in Ambrose’s life, but his godfather brings up more practical issues: Now that Ambrose has married and will likely have children, Philip is no longer the default heir. He needs to find his own place:
I rode home, sick with uncertainty and sadness. I hardly knew what to do or how to act. Should I make plans, as my godfather had said? Find myself a home? Make preparations for departure? I did not want to live anywhere else or possess another property. Ambrose had brought me up and trained me for this one alone. It was mine. It was his. It belonged to both of us. But now no longer, everything had changed. (24)
Time continues to pass with Ambrose abroad and Philip rattling around the house. His concerns turn to Ambrose’s health. There are hints he is unwell and his letters become shorter and less frequent. Philip receives a letter written in an unsteady hand that he barely recognizes:
I drew out the scrap of paper and held it to the window for light.
The words were scrawled, almost illegible.
“For God’s sake, come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late. Ambrose.”
That was all. There was no date upon the paper, no mark upon the envelope, which was sealed with his own ring. (29)
Philip leaves immediately, but is too late. He tours the house where Ambrose lived with Rachel and struggles to picture Ambrose in such a place. The biggest question mark is Rachel herself: Did she poison Ambrose? Philip builds a version of Rachel in his mind from the snippets he hears of her character. She looms over the narrative long before she is officially presented to Philip and the reader. This is something that du Maurier writes well; consider Rebecca, in which the titular Rebecca steers everyone by the strength of her absence and the impression left on her widower. Rachel’s appearance, as Ambrose’s widow, at his estate is immensely satisfying. Philip envisions her a dozen different ways before their meeting and as much as I suspected Philip’s expectations were inaccurate, I was still quite surprised…
The book moves quickly, though it’s more about character building than racking up plot points. Like Philip, the reader is deeply invested in digging into Rachel’s character. Did she poison Ambrose? There’s a steady push-pull to drag the reader back and forth through Rachel’s possible guilt and her possible innocence. Added to this are the ways in which Philip cannot be taken wholly at his word as narrator; his biases seep through and infect the reader. I love unreliable narrators, but Philip can be trying at times. He’s immature and can go on a bit, even though the story ultimately works well with him at its center. He slowly takes over the estate and steps into Ambrose’s role (following his routines, wearing his clothes) which keeps Ambrose in the story. The bond between the two cousins is convincing; a lesser author might have brushed Ambrose to the side and reduced his death to an on-switch for the plot. Keeping him around creates a strange, unsettling threesome with Rachel and Philip.
I haven’t read Rebecca for a while, but I rank My Cousin Rachel right alongside it. The two books are constructed differently in the end, but both are masterfully written and offer genuine suspense.
Translation: Highly recommended. It reads especially well when tucked in bed on a stormy evening.