My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you’re a fan of old-school romantic suspense, then you cannot go wrong at all with Daphne du Maurier. Especially if you pick up Rebecca, which I was very pleased to finally do. Many of the elements in this book are classically Gothic: the innocent young new bride, the brooding husband, the dead first wife, the remote mansion, the creepy housekeeper, and such. They are in fact Gothic enough that it took me a bit to realize that the novel was in fact set in a modern (as of the time it was written) time frame! In that respect, du Maurier reads a lot like Mary Stewart, and if you like Stewart you’ll probably like du Maurier very much.
Our story starts off with a young woman working as a companion in Monte Carlo to the odious Mrs. Van Hopper. She’s saved from exile to New York in Mrs. Van Hopper’s company by falling in love with an older man, Maxim de Winter, who is said to be haunted by the recent death of his first wife. To our heroine’s amazement, Maxim proposes to her, and she is whisked off to his mansion in Cornwall, Manderley, as the new Mrs. de Winter.
Once there, she discovers that Maxim, his housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and the rest of the staff in the house are all still dominated by the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter–who, even after her death, is such a potent force that our shy young heroine is driven to despair. But as this is indeed a Gothic-style suspense novel, that is of course not all. For there are suspicious circumstances indeed about how Rebecca died!
It must be noted that our heroine is never actually given a name–which, it turns out, was a deliberate choice of the author. The edition I have includes a section at the end in which du Maurier explains to her readers that she never actually thought of a name for the character. It works wonderfully, though, as a symbol of how so thoroughly the second Mrs. de Winter is overwhelmed by the impact her predecessor had on Manderley even after her death.
There’s an original version of the book’s ending included with my edition, too, which is worth reading and comparing against the beginning of the finished story, since du Maurier moved a lot of that material into the initial chapter of the book. From a writer’s perspective it’s fun to see her explanations for why she did that, and from a reader’s perspective and a writer’s perspective alike, I can appreciate her choices. Without going into detail, I’ll say that for me as a reader, it seemed that du Maurier absolutely made the right choice, since her original ending was way too reminiscent of Jane Eyre.
I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, even though this novel’s old enough that many of you out there who are my age or older may have already read it, or may have seen the Hitchcock film that was based on this work. (And if you’re a Hitchcock fan, I can add too that I can absolutely see why Hitchcock made this into a movie; it’s very much right up his alley.) As with Mary Stewart, the pacing is slower than a modern reader may expect. But if you don’t mind taking your time, and in fact like to indulge in an author’s rich and slowly building prose, Rebecca will reward you. Five stars.