Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
“Rebecca is a work of immense intelligence and wit, elegantly written, thematically solid, suspenseful..” —Washington Post
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .”
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
First published in 1938, this classic gothic novel is such a compelling read that it won the Anthony Award for Best Novel of the Century.
Well…this is awkward.
So, most of my friends love this book. Naturally, I wanted to as well. I blame the herd mentality.
Did I love this book? At times, yes. Did I also loathe this book? At times, yes. It’s made deciding on a rating a much more daunting task than I normally face. After reflecting on it for some time, and re-reading my f-bomb laden notes, I’m going with two stars, because as a whole, I did not enjoy this.
While I greatly detested some aspects, I can still recognize gorgeous prose when I see it. Honestly, I almost gave this three stars for the writing alone, because it’s so beautiful that it becomes distracting, and when you pair this with a hauntingly gothic setting? Magic.
“Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.”
What ruined this for me were the attitudes and the actions of those depicted within it. I’m not one of those readers that have to love characters to enjoy a story or appreciate its message. There have been quite a few instances where I’ve rated a book highly even when I hated every single person in it. That’s because while I didn’t necessarily agree with what they were doing, or their thought processes, I understood them on some level.
*WARNING: UNMARKED SPOILERS*
Sadly, this is not the case with Rebecca. The female lead, who is also the narrator, is left without a name throughout. Upon reading the afterward, I’m wondering if that’s because it would have been all too obvious if the author had named her Daphne. She is the very definition of a Mary Sue, taking almost entirely after the person who created her. But, for the sake of this review, let’s call the MC Not Cory. I think it has a catchy ring to it. It’s also fitting, as she is the complete and total opposite of me in almost every way imaginable.
When the book opens, Not Cory is reflecting on her life, and the remaining pages focus on the events she’s reliving. It all begins in Monte Carlo, with her as the companion to a tactless and garish woman of means. A chance encounter has her bumping into a wealthy Englishman named Maxim de Winter, a man twenty years her senior and recently widowed.
What follows is a whirlwind courtship set against the backdrop of the south of France. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Er, not so much. This part of the book served as nothing more than a reminder of how foolish first love can make us. My hat is off to Du Maurier for her flawless portrayal of this time in our lives, when your future is spread out in front of you and all your fantasies still seem tangible.
What made it that much more difficult to read was the MC. Not Cory is a dreamer; she lives largely inside of her head, and the smallest thing, from her companion choosing to host a cocktail party, to the rising of the sun, can send her mind spinning as she plays out the infinite consequences of these things.
This tendency becomes obsessive when Maxim enters the picture. Where she is both immature and naïve, he is complicated and divided. Her happiness becomes dependent on his smiles, her misery decided by a harsh word. Thanks to their age difference, he’s forgotten what this is like, how raw and all-consuming first love can be, and he’s careless with her feelings because of it. He takes complete advantage of her throughout, and I hated him almost from the point of his introduction.
The singular reason that he’s even attracted to her at all is because she is the antithesis of his late wife. So I’m sorry to all the Maxim shippers, but I can find nothing redeeming or romantic about an older man who so casually mistreats his innocent young wife.
Not Cory might be naïve, but she’s not an utter fool. Her introspectiveness makes her a keen observer, and even in their early days together, she realizes that something isn’t right between her and Maxim. She senses it should be different, has premonitions of what’s to come. After their honeymoon, they head home, to Manderley where all becomes clear.
Rebecca. Rebecca. Rebecca. Rebecca. REBECCA!
The dead wife. She’s there with them, always. Both the servants of the household, and the surrounding villagers preferred her and her outgoing nature, her wild parties, the way she could draw one out of themselves and make them feel as though they were a trusted friend, to Not Cory and her shy, withdrawn nature. It doesn’t help matters that she was tall, gorgeous, refined, and well bred, and that almost everyone Not Cory meets feels the need to remind her of this.
She feels Rebecca hanging over her marriage like a ghoul, dogging her steps throughout her new home, distracting and beguiling her husband from beyond the grave. So it’s understandable that after a few short weeks at Manderley, Not Cory begins to further withdraw from her surroundings, turn more introspective, begin to question everything about her marriage and the man she’s attached herself to.
At this point, the book turns into a slow motion train wreck. You see how easily she’s manipulated by the aging Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s old maid, by her husband, by the others around her, and you just want to shake her out of it. Instead of character progression, you get regression, and watching it all unfold is frustrating to say the least. I kept waiting for her to grow a spine, for her to start questioning things, to stand up for herself. Sadly, this never happens.
And all the while, there’s Maxim, patting her head like a dog if she pleases him, frowning and becoming withdrawn if she doesn’t. I saw too many signs of a perfect victim within his wife, and it greatly disturbed me. She became constantly aware of his moods, adjusted her own behaviors to compensate for them, steered conversations if she worried that they might be heading down roads that might upset him.
Maxim, Maxim, Maxim, Maxim, MAXIM!
Less than half of the way through, I had every single plot twist unraveled. It made for a rather anticlimactic finish, and I found myself skimming through large sections of Not Cory’s infuriatingly weak inner monologue.
The biggest “revelation” of them all almost caused me to rage quit, but I had come too far. Maxim reveals that his first wife didn’t drown. He killed her. And instead of being horrified, Not Cory is insanely happy. Because he never loved her. FUCKING WHAT?! Then there was another reveal, which I didn’t buy at all because of all the things I’ve previously discussed in regards to Maxim. He tells Not Cory he loves her. It’s almost laughable. He treated her as if she were an errant child throughout the entire book. He even called her a child repeatedly, and condescended to her about it. Ugh. He did not once until that point show her more than a passing kindness and nothing in his manner ever, EVER spoke of love or any strong emotion at all.
In closing, I don’t get the hype. I don’t think that this is remarkable or groundbreaking, and I don’t even think it should be classified as a romance. I think many of the themes are merely reused and reworked from earlier gothic novels, primarily Jane Eyre. In fact, this has such a remarkable amount of similarities to it, that I’ll be reading it next, and I plan on coming back and adding a section about my findings.