Matt's Reviews > Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
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it was amazing
bookshelves: classic-novels, mystery

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
- the opening lines of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca

As a reader, there’s nothing so thrilling as the joy of discovery. Of happening upon a book you’ve never heard of, reading it, and absolutely loving it. And then going out and telling ten other people about the incredible experience. That happened to me upon reading Rebecca.

To be sure, I didn't exactly “discover” Daphne du Maurier's classic any more than Columbus discovered America. After all, it was published in 1938 and has never gone out of print. More to the point, I was not ignorant of its existence. As a World War II buff (and ex-Ken Follett fan), I knew that the Germans used Rebecca as the key to a code book. I knew that Hitchcock directed a film version. And I knew those famous opening lines, quoted above.

Nothing I knew about the book, however, encouraged me to pick it up. The title is innocuous. That opening line is meaningless. (Manderley? What the hell is Manderley?). Somehow, though, after reading some list or another – I believe it was a list of books to read after Gone Girl – a tattered, used copy of Rebecca ended up on my shelf. Then one night it ended up on my bedside table. The rest is history.

Very very very very very very very small and unimportant history.

Rebecca is the story of the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter and is told in the first-person from her point of view. When the novel begins, the second Mrs. de Winter – she is never named – is living modestly abroad. She begins a lengthy reminiscence about her time in Monte Carlo, playing maidservant to an American woman. It is there she meets the wealthy Maximilian de Winter, the man who owns the famous and beautiful Cornish estate called Manderley. After a whirlwind romance, the narrator – fragile, self-conscious, naïve – marries Maxim and returns with him to his estate.

At Manderley, the second Mrs. de Winter meets three interesting characters, only one of whom is presently animate. The first is the estate itself, Manderley. Both the house and the surrounding grounds are described in rich, reverent detail. The place has a haunting grip on Maxim de Winter, and soon sinks its hooks into the second Mrs. de Winter as well. The second major character – the one who is actually a live human being – is the sly, ominous head maid, Mrs. Danvers. She presides over an immaculate, unused portion of the household, with a view of the sea.

The third major character is a memory. She is the first Mrs. de Winter: Rebecca. Though Rebecca is already dead when the second Mrs. de Winter begins her tale, her presence – her ghost – rests heavily over everyone and everything. Her life and death is the novel’s driving force and central mystery. Rebecca’s hold on Mrs. Danvers, on Maxim, on just about everyone she came into contact with, continuously stalks the second Mrs. de Winter.

And that’s what I can tell you about the plot.

I won’t venture any more. I won’t even hide it behind a spoiler tag. One of the great joys of reading this book is that I didn't know the ending. That’s rare with classical literature. It’s hard to get through life as an educated human being with access to the internet without somehow learning the twists, the turns, the surprises, the climaxes, to famous literature. Rebecca came to me as an absolute unknown, with only a vague title and a renowned first line.

Well, I will say this. Rebecca starts slow. I feel compelled to say this because after I finished – and loved – it, I started recommending the thing left and right. Certain of my friends, trusting my judgment, took me up on the suggestion, and immediately started giving me sidelong glances. Keep reading, I said. At a certain point, the languorous pacing, the uncertain narrative arc, snaps into place like a bear trap. All at once, the methodical plodding gives way to piano-wire suspense. I was tearing through pages at a fantastic rate, nearly skimming. This is the kind of novel that makes your eyes want to cheat over to the right-hand page while the left remains unread.

It should also be noted that the ending is rather – well, it’s a bit controversial, at least in qualitative terms. Even Daphne du Maurier had problems with it. (My edition of the novel includes an alternate ending, as well as an essay from the author describing the changes). I say this because the same friends who gave me sidelong glances during the early portions of the novel resurrected those glances when they reached the end.

It can also be said that du Maurier writes beautifully. Though her narrator is never really defined as a person – never given a name, even – she is strikingly distinct. (You can trace a line, I think, between the second Mrs. de Winter and the shy, neurotic Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House). The mystery that du Maurier unveils is peeled carefully, with great precision, so that when you finish, certain parts bear rereading. Du Maurier is also wonderful at creating a sense of place that is both beautiful and foreboding:

The sky, now overcast and sullen, so changed from the early afternoon, and the steady, insistent rain could not disturb the quietude of the valley; the rain and the rivulet mingled with one another, and the liquid note of the blackbird fell upon the damp air in harmony with them both. I brushed the dripping heads of the azaleas as I passed, so close they grew together, bordering the path. Little drops of water fell on to my hands from the soaked petals. There were petals at my feet too, brown and sodden, bearing their scent upon them still, and a richer, older scent as well, the smell of deep moss and bitter earth, the stems of bracken, and the twisted roots of trees. I held Maxim’s hand and I had not spoken. The spell of the Happy Valley was upon me. This at last was the core of Manderley, the Manderley I would know and learn to love. The first drive was forgotten, the black, herded woods, the glaring rhododendrons, luscious and over-proud. And the vast house too, the silence of that echoing hall, the uneasy stillness of the west wing, wrapped in dust sheet. There I was an interloper, wandering in rooms that did not know me, sitting at a desk and in a chair that was not mine. Here it was different. The Happy Valley knew no trespassers. We came to the end of the path, and the flowers formed an archway above our heads. We bent down, passing underneath, and when I stood straight again, brushing the raindrops from my hair, I saw that the valley was behind us, and the azaleas, and the trees, and, as Maxim had described to me that afternoon many weeks ago in Monte Carlo, we were standing in a little narrow cove, the shingle hard and white under our feet, and the sea was breaking on the shore beyond us…

The cover of my copy of Rebecca states only that it is “The classic tale of romantic suspense.” I initially laughed at that tagline because what the hell is romantic suspense? Having finished, the tagline makes no more sense than before. But I understand the copy-editor’s problem. How can you sell a book like this, a book in which the title character is a figurative ghost (and is literally quite dead)?

Really, the cover should have said “Trust me,” and left it at that. So, trust me.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 13, 2014 – Finished Reading
December 23, 2014 – Shelved
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: classic-novels
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: mystery

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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Kelly I love this book so much and I love that you loved it too. So unlike your usual reading, it makes it even better!

Reading your review let me relive the atmosphere for a few minutes- great quote choice. Resisting temptation to re-read now...

Vanessa Dicesare I'm glad you discovered this book! My mom read this book to me as a kid and I never forgot it. I also recommend Jamaica Inn, by the same author. It's one of my all time favorite books and I liked it even more than Rebecca.

Matt Kelly wrote: "I love this book so much and I love that you loved it too. So unlike your usual reading, it makes it even better!

Reading your review let me relive the atmosphere for a few minutes- great quote c..."

I'm trying to read more books that aren't about the Civil War, World War I, or World War II. So far it's working out! Rebecca was awesome, and all the more so since I wasn't expecting it to be so gripping.

Nooilforpacifists I made the mistake of starting this book the day before classes began for law school. I got no sleep that night; finished about 5 am. It's still one of the best 20 -- best 10 even? -- books I've read.

A Masterpiece Theater production from the 80s stuck to the original book--unlike Hitchcock, who had to change the ending for Hayes Code-type reasons.

Robbi Leah  Freeman Great review and interesting history!

message 6: by Katerbean98 (new) - added it

Katerbean98 I’ve only ever seen the amazing Hitchcock movie, and have been wanting to read this one for a while now! Great review!

Alicia Ehrhardt I've loved this one forever, and I'm sure it has influenced both my style and my storytelling, because she's so good.

Another I read very young - can't even remember when or who recommended it (certainly not any of my adolescent companions), but it sticks with you in so many ways, doesn't it?

I haven't seen the film, so my memory is just of that very well written suspense. You finish it and can only think 'Wow!'

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