August 14, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Rebecca
Wow! What an amazing book! It’s been a long time since I’ve been glued to a book—I guess I sort of thought I was finally outgrowing that mode of reading, but apparently not! Rebecca is masterfully written and changes seamlessly from one type of story into another the way late afternoon turns to dusk. It’s about a young girl working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo (early 1900s? 20s maybe? the setting is hard to pin down) when she meets mysterious and wealthy Maximilian de Winter; they marry suddenly and soon she finds herself at his famous estate, Manderley, in England. Manderley is beautiful but completely out of her sphere; she doesn’t know how to handle the servants or run the household or be social, and her strong impression is that everyone is comparing her to the first Mrs de Winter—Rebecca, who died at sea less than a year prior—and finding her wanting. It reads a bit like a time-travel novel, where a modern heroine is flung into a Jane Austen novel and is amusingly discomfited, but it’s not nearly so fanciful. The small ways in which she can be humiliated even by her servants and her husband are almost heartbreaking, and Rebecca’s presence and habits overshadow hers so completely (the narrator doesn’t even have a name) that for a couple hundred pages I was expecting it to turn into a ghost story. And what’s incredible is that it does, but not in the sense you might think. It is a psychological ghost story; it proves that you don’t need a real ectoplasmic visitor to be haunted, threatened, and eventually unhinged by an alien presence. It’s fascinating the way it works! It’s a meticulously executed piece of work that is amazing in its persuasiveness.
And then halfway through the story is turned on its head. I hate to even say it, because I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s astounding to be reading a quiet sad psychological study about upper-class England and suddenly realize that you’re actually reading a plot-driven drama not necessarily tied to anything that made the beginning of the book good or important. It’s actually my favorite type of book: at first it is well-written and satisfyingly precise, and suddenly the author shows herself to have moxie above and beyond anything the beginning could have led you to expect. All books should blossom like this. It was so much fun to read! I read the last 300 pages or so in a single afternoon—it was that kind of a book.
My only criticism is that the ending is very abrupt. The pattern of narration is such that you start at the end of the story arc but are very soon thrown back to “where it all began.” The problem is that the rest of the book doesn’t take you all the way back to where you started, so you have to fill in a big blank by yourself and maybe go back and reread the first couple chapters. It wasn’t all that much trouble, though. And, truly, that was my only criticism. The narrator is extremely timid and insecure and loves her husband with sort of a pathetic, desperate love, but to my surprise this in no way made her an unsympathetic character. Props to du Maurier. Well done, madam. There was much that could have gone wrong, and nothing that did. Excellent work. I loved this book so much I am quite willing to go out and buy it.
There was a strange air of unreality about that luncheon, and looking back upon it now it is invested for me with a curious glamour. There was I, so much of a schoolgirl still, who only the day before had sat with Mrs Van Hopper, prim, silent, and subdued, and twenty-four hours afterwards my family history was mine no longer, I shared it with a man I did not know. For some reason I felt impelled to speak, because his eyes followed me in sympathy like the Gentleman Unknown.
My shyness fell away from me, loosening as it did so my reluctant tongue, and out they all came, the little secrets of childhood, the pleasures and the pains. It seemed to me as though he understood, from my poor description, something of the vibrant personality that had been my father’s, and something too of the love my mother had for him, making it a vital, living force, with a spark of divinity about it, so much that when he died that desperate winter, struck down by pneumonia, she lingered behind him for five short weeks and stayed no more. I remember pausing, a little breathless, a little dazed. The restaurant was filled now with people who chatted and laughed to an orchestral background and a clatter of plates, and glancing at the clock above the door I saw that it was two o’clock. We had been sitting there an hour and a half, and the conversation had been mine alone.
I tumbled down into reality, hot-handed and self-conscious, with my face aflame, and began to stammer my apologies. He would not listen to me.
“I told you at the beginning of lunch you had a lovely and unusual name,” he said. “I shall go further, if you will forgive me, and say that it becomes you as well as it became your father. I’ve enjoyed this hour with you more than I have enjoyed anything for a very long time. You’ve taken me out of myself, out of despondency and introspection, both of which have been my devils for a year.”
I looked at him, and believed he spoke the truth; he seemed less fettered than he had been before, more modern, more human; he was not hemmed in by shadows.