Initial reaction: I loved this book even years after reading it for the first time. I think Daphne du Maurier had such a strong construction with respect to the characters, sense of place, foreboding atmosphere, and symbolic texture of this entire narrative. Beautifully written.
“They make fools of us together
But we always think of them
All their laughing and their talking and their wasting of our time
And it always hurts to see them now
That everything is different
We don’t like to see their eyes cause they will never look the same.”
Lyrics from “Horror Show” by The Birthday Massacre
Citing part of these lyrics because they were running through my head thematically as I penned this review. Seems appropriate considering this is a gothic novel. =)
Writing this review on one of my all-time favorite novels is a bit intimidating because there aren’t enough proper words for me to convey how much I loved Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” This is a deliciously dark gothic novel with wonderfully flawed, developed characters in scenarios that are equal parts harrowing, intriguing, and frustrating. I always say that the books that I end up loving are ones that leave me thinking long after I’ve turned the final page, as well as those that blend quite a mixture of different elements within them. This is, in parts, a mystery, suspense, and darker romance, with qualities that are atmospheric, foreboding, and contemplative.
I first read “Rebecca” at the age of 14 – as part of a mandatory book review assignment for my 9th grade Advanced English class. I didn’t really have a large selection of books to choose from, and “Rebecca” seemed one of the most intriguing to me from the blurb. I picked it up from the school library the very next day after the assignment was given. The only available copy of the book was worn thin, the pages almost falling out from where it had been read so much. It was the old Avon edition that had this cover:
Writing the book report was another matter, but I loved the experience of reading “Rebecca” for the first time – for its characters, for even the suspense it kept me holding onto. Just when you think things might get easier for Maxim and the new Mrs. De Winter, it more frequently fell apart than not.
I’ve read this novel multiple times since, but I think this is the first time I’ve fully read the work in about ten years. I’m going to approach this from my own interpretations and perspective, but there’s a very nice afterword in the Little Brown and Company edition that explains the background in which du Maurier wrote “Rebecca,” the thematic and symbolism of the novel, among a few other interesting tidbits.
Let’s start with the characters. What an exceptional, yet flawed cast of complex characters. The reader finds themselves following the heroine of this novel from one point to the next, and part of the intrigue lies in her identity, or lack thereof. Some call her “nameless”, some call her “me”, some call her the “second Mrs. De Winter” or simply “Mrs. De Winter.” I’m going to refer to her as “Mrs. De Winter” for this review. She’s a deeply flawed character. Sometimes you may want to throw the book at her because she tends to be submissive more often than not, not so much asserting herself where she needs to. And you could argue that “Mrs. De Winter never really comes to have her own identity during the course of events in “Rebecca”. Rather, there are points where it seems like she comes into her own, grows from the experiences she endures, but yet regresses in places as the wife of Maxim De Winter and learning all the secrets that Manderley has to hold.
She starts the novel as a naïve assistant to a rather brazen, self-centered woman. This changes when the ladies meet Maxim De Winter. Maxim is, in himself, a complicated, troubled gentleman with a brooding, sometimes temperamental presence. The heroine isn’t exactly sure why, especially when the mention of Manderley seems to take him from being a charming person to one who’s notably haunted. Still, the two end up enjoying each others company. By scheme of events, Mrs. De Winter ends up impulsively marrying Maxim (even if he’s in his 40s and could well be a father figure to her. He reminds her as much when talking about her “innocence.”).
When the two end up returning to Manderley after their honeymoon, Mrs. De Winter has all the joy of a blushing bride approaching her new life in something she can claim as her own along with her husband. But the life she imagines and gushes over is not the one waiting for her at Manderley. It’d be one thing if it were just the routine and formalities that await her, but the people and environment of Manderley is weighed down by the memory of one single unforgettable woman.
Everything from the slanted curves of her writing to her noted tragic demise – Rebecca’s presence is felt in every corner, even among the staff so loyal to her (especially one very obsessed Mrs. Danvers, who isn’t happy with Maxim’s replacement wife.) Mrs. De Winter realizes she has shoes to fill. It is frustrating in turns to see how the heroine submits to keeping everything the same and withdrawal from asserting herself, but I was fascinated by the intricate power plays that this novel showcased with Mrs. De Winter, internal and external for her part. She struggles to assert herself out of Rebecca’s shadow, but more often than not – she’s plagued with her own personal demons of gossip as well as chatter and expectation from people who consider her less than Rebecca. And more often than not, she earns ire for what she doesn’t know about Rebecca and Maxim’s respective past. Each time she pushes, though, it seems to drive Maxim further away.
Mrs. De Winter finds comrades in Beatrice (Bee, who is Maxim’s honest sister – I loved her) and Frank, Maxim’s closest friend – who seems to know more than he lets on at times.
There are some striking twists in this novel that are so well plotted and jarring that even upon this re-read, it still strikes me with the same eerieness and power it had in the first time I read the novel. I won’t say more to spoil the experience, but the web weaves much deeper than anything Mrs. De Winter imagined, and while it pulls her closer to Maxim once she learns the truth of things, it also threatens to unravel her as well.
An all time favorite of mine, notably a classic for good reason, and highly recommended.
Overall score: 5/5 stars
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Little Brown and Company.