I have never read anything by Daphne du Maurier before, though this book (and others of hers) are considered classics and she is known as one of the greatest shapers of popular culture and modern imagination (or at least, that’s what “back of the book” blurbs say about her). But seriously, I knew her work inspired some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous pieces – and we all know what a scion of popular culture he is. So, when I saw this was a popular October read, I wanted to join the crowds getting into the spirit of the cold/dark months and grabbed a used copy of this at a local bookstore. And now here we are, no longer even close to that time of year (like seriously, we’re moving quickly into Spring, which is like, the happiest/brightest season), and I’ve just now managed to read this. Ha – story of my literary life, pretty much.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”
This story is told from the perspective of the new Mrs. Maxim de Winter. She meets Maxim and, in a whirlwind of what cannot quite be called romance, is married to him and moves to his home on the Cornish coast, Manderley. However, everything from the moment she arrives is overshadowed by the memory and eerie presence of the previous Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. It seems that Rebecca was perfect, loved by everyone and could do no wrong, but there is a presentiment of “wrong” at Manderley that our new bride slowly becomes more and more determined to unravel. And the secrets of the past might turn out to be even darker than she imagined…
Talk about some famous starting lines! Even before I knew these lines were from this novel, I recognized the quote. It’s always a very exciting way to start a new book, with such anticipated words. Anyways, this book absolutely lives up to its reputation. From the very beginning, the sinister and haunting aura takes hold and does not, for a single moment, let up. There are so many little things that the author does to create this ambiance and they all meld together so well. First, the general gothic language and style of writing (particularly the descriptions of the house, grounds and general environment) is on point – exactly what you’d except if you’d picked up an original Victorian gothic, a gorgeous tribute to the genre. Then, the obsession of each character with Rebecca. It’s incredibly creepy the way each action, daily tradition, etc. is kept/followed in exactly the way Rebecca did it, despite her having been dead for over a year. It’s like the entirety of Manderley and its staff is a mausoleum to her (and in fact, some staff members legitimately admit to that, in some cases). Its no wonder that the pall of her memory takes over everything. And I mean every character, even the ones who seem to be ok with her passing or even just neutral to it – none of them can help but center all their conversation, suggestions, comments, future plans from a “this is what Rebecca was like” and “this is how Rebecca did it” perspective. It’s done both subtlety and overtly and the duality works perfectly. This is enhanced by the fact that everyone acts hesitant when actually giving any details of substance about Rebecca, her personality, her death (especially Maxim himself). It’s strange and unnerving. In addition, du Maurier picks perfect moments to throw in a larger disturbing moment or two (many of which are related to the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers). These come at exactly the right moments to truly drive home the hair-raising feeling of the novel.
And then there is the narrator herself. She does not at all help the issue of the obsession with the previous Mrs. de Winter, because she is perhaps the most pathetic, mousey, intimidate-able, nondescript personality I have ever read. (Fascinatingly, I love how this impression is supported by the fact that she is never, herself, named…other than as Mrs. de Winter. It’s like she has no presence of her own, nothing at all to fight off the ghost of Rebecca’s presence.) She’s also a terrible catastrophizer/dweller, and since the story is from her perspective, every time she assumes someone is thinking about or preferring Rebecca (which is literally all the time), we hear that as readers. And then, once she does start to find things out, she’s almost just as crazy-obsessed as the rest of the characters, except her obsession goes in another direction. Instead of being unable to let go of Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter cannot let go of Maxim – supporting him and losing herself in him with a blindness that is creepy in it’s own right (and, based on all the interactions between them that we get to see, I cannot see what really inspires her to that kind of loyalty, other than the aforementioned lack of spine/personality that is her main characteristic). It’s completely on-brand for the rest of the novel though and kind of makes you realize how unreliable she may actually be as a narrator, which adds an entire extra layer to the unnerving bent of the story.
I was into this novel from the start – it grabbed me at once and really never let go. The plot, if you will, does actually get a little down to the wire by the end. Once Rebecca’s secrets start coming out (or, well, once Maxim finally opens up to his new wife), things get quite sticky…and quickly. And the ending, like the last page…mmmmm, it is just right. Still, it never reaches a breakneck speed by any means, it’s just that the muscles in the reader’s shoulders that have been tense the whole time get just a little tighter. Despite that, I was never bored, not once. The spectacularly unsettling, horrible, perfectly-built morbidity that unfolded was just that good. Honestly, I never for one second felt relaxed while reading this. Even the moments when our narrator was just taking a walk with the dog, I always felt tense and ready for the hammer to drop. It’s just a beautifully executed novel of suspense. I find that I am totally on board with the “perfect for Halloween-time” reviews and would like to just add that, even though I read this on the brink of Spring, it didn’t take away any of the chilling feel the novel inspires in the reader.