All I knew of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was its famous first line:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.
Do you really need to know anything else? That is a perfect first sentence.
The story begins in Monte Carlo when a young woman learning how to be a professional companion meets him. She’s 21 years old with no home or family; her future looks already spent catering to other people’s wants for all of 90 pounds a year. He’s older, wealthy and brooding. The elusive Maxim de Winter is trapped in a personal hell, apparently grieving his late wife Rebecca.
I’m glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love.
I haven’t read many romances, but those I have typically end in a proposal. This isn’t one of those. The courtship is short lived, as are the ideals of love and marriage that run through her head when the widowed de Winter offers her an escape from the bleak future that awaits her. Before she knows it she’s arriving at Manderly in the rain married to a man she thinks she loves to live a life in Rebecca’s chilling shadow.
Though Manderly belongs to Maxim’s family, everything there reflects Rebecca’s choices. The overwhelming number of servants, townspeople and associates can’t go without noting how very different she is from Rebecca, always mentioning how beautiful Rebecca was in the same breath. The new Mrs. de Winter has the seemingly impossible task of trying to start her new life on a moving train filled with secrets. She pets Rebecca’s dog, cuts Rebecca’s roses, eats Rebecca’s favorite sauces. She avoids the west wing entirely.
Three months into the new marriage, she’s at a loss. She can’t compete, confront or fight with Maxim’s late wife as she could if he had a mistress. How could anyone compete with a woman who will always be beautiful and never grow old? It appears that she’s married into a privileged if loveless life, and you feel for her. Mrs. de Winter is one of the meekest characters I’ve come across, and on top of it all she has Mrs. Danvers to contend with. Oh, Mrs. Danvers has to be one of the most malevolent literary villains ever. Add these two extremes to one small story and the tension is bound to catch fire.
Daphne du Maurier doesn’t assume that her reader has any knowledge of the customs of the rich and British during this time. This world unfolds for us as it does for the new Mrs. de Winter. We spend a lot of time inside her head as she second guesses herself, but we’re always brought back to Manderly with its Happy Valley and narrow wooded trails leading to the beach and a small, abandoned cottage.
This is kind of a slow burner, but I enjoyed it, almost loved it if it wasn’t for that dreary epilogue. The writing is superb and the simple premise is surprisingly original. There are countless moments when you cringe, hold your breath or roll your eyes. It’s engaging with a distinct moodiness that carries the few dull parts. Because of the backwards glancing structure, you know something is going to happen to take her away from Manderly and change everything. Without this, I may have lost interest in part because Maxim is so dull and it often seems like the only interesting character is dead Rebecca.
Though classified as a romantic suspense, it’s not very high on the romance or the suspense. It’s more of a mellow mystery filled with nerves and jealousy and reasons to keep reading. We never do find out the name of our narrator, Maxim’s new wife the young Mrs. de Winter. Very clever not to tell us her name because the truth is it doesn’t matter to the story, which is kind of depressing, but this is kind of a depressing tale (less so if you skip the epilogue!).
After finishing, I realized Alfred Hitchcock adapted the novel into a film by the same title with Laurence Olivier as Maxim. I was so excited to see it! Then I saw it. … THUMBS DOWN. It doesn’t do the book justice, possibly the only Hitchcock movie I haven’t liked.