Date read: 2.8.09
Read from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Young, unworldly, and hopelessly shy, our nameless narrator finds herself swept off of her feet by the widowed and much older Maxim DeWinter while working as the companion of a wealthy American woman on the French Riviera. Maxim takes her away to his estate in England, Manderley, where the soon-disenheartened narrator learns that her lot is to live in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Rebecca was glamorous, flamboyant, the consummate wife and hostess; Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is fiercely devoted to her memory, and regards Maxim’s second wife as an interloper and a poor replacement. Between Mrs. Danvers’ cruel manipulations and Maxim’s moody secrecy – which the narrator fears is a sign that he still loves Rebecca – the narrator finds herself without allies in Manderley, and is driven both to uncover the truth of of what happened to Rebecca, and to come into her own as a woman.
Hmm, awkward summary. Anyway, I read this following Isaac Marion’s The Inside, and together they ended up being a one-two punch of delicious, delicious suspense. I couldn’t read Rebecca in anything less than 100-page chunks – addictive to the max, it is.
More critically, I found Du Maurier’s writing very good, appropriately elegant, but not outstanding. While her pacing is enthralling and the atmosphere of dread, guilt, and desire is meticulously woven, the language itself is conventional and tends towards unfortunate sentimentality. Hence we get descriptions like “butterflies dancing in merry jigs.” The symbolism and foreshadowing are also occasionally insultingly obvious – as the narrator is driven by glorious red rhododendrons that formerly belonged to Rebecca, we’re informed that “theirs was a brief glory” – reeeeeally? No way. And though the characters are memorable and psychologically compelling, they’re painted in rather broad strokes. All told, I could easily see why this would become an instant bestseller while still earning enough critical praise to be considered something of a classic. Fun stuff with a little depth, but not much.
Since desire, adultery, and sexual taboo are at the core of the plot, it would be fun to re-read the book with an eye towards suppressed sexuality, especially given the fact that Du Maurier herself was a closeted bisexual, and that certain dynamics in the book have lesbian undertones (more like screaming overtones).
Also, I’ve seen Rebecca dubbed a spin on Jane Eyre, which led me to thinking that they both, in fact, grew out of the Bluebeard fairy tale, which led me to comparing Rebecca with “The Bloody Chamber,” Angela Carter’s retelling of Bluebeard in her short story collection of the same title (one of my absolute favorite books, and one of the most influential on my writing and thinking). Young – very, very young – woman put into the total power of an older, unpredictable man; a corrupting fascination with old money, opulence, and the potential for sexuality; dubiously reluctant participation in one’s own corruption… It also occurs to me that the core of Bluebeard is the Eve narrative – punishment of female curiosity, after the woman at fault has been wedged, by an authority figure, into a position that privileges the authority with the ability to yell “HOW COULD YOU DO THAT” at her after the fact.
Okay, having really over-excited thoughts now about someone doing a weird remix of Genesis and Bluebeard, except that I can’t think of too many people who would be able to do it and actually keep it meaningful and nuanced, and not just smirkingly trading on the shock! blasphemy! value.