Author: Daphne du Maurier
Published: originally published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz Ltd., 386 pages
First line: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Genre: Gothic, literary fiction, mystery, coming-of-age
Rating: 4.9/5 lesbian housekeepers that stare at you from behind curtains
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s debut novel, successfully straddles the fence between literary and scandalous. The novel owes a lot to Jane Eyre, which gives it some street cred right away. What makes the book so fantastic is the deliciously creepy and haunting atmosphere du Maurier creates around the heroine, who eerily is never named (what a field day critics have had with that), not to mention the sexy undertones that lace through every plot twist and character description. This book is all about sex without getting past first base, and that kind of subtle skill is just hot.
The novel centers around the narrator, a shy, awkward orphan who initially describes herself as drab, mousy, and generally uninteresting (I know, uninteresting heroine? She gets better, though!). The story is framed as a memory, with the first two chapters describing her current invalid/caretaker marriage and homeless wandering through the hotels of Europe. What follows is the story of how she and her husband met, married, and transformed from lord and lady of a grand estate to that initial dismal portrait.
Traveling as a paid lady’s companion on holiday in Monte Carlo, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, a recent widower, when she is 20 years old to Maxim’s 43 (yes, daddy issues abound). After a hurried, boring courtship, they marry and retire to his grand country estate. Once there, the pace quickens as the new Mrs. de Winter immediately finds herself pitted against the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, a wild, beautiful woman named Rebecca who lorded over Manderley for years as the idol of her neighbors and husband before drowning in a boating accident. The ghost of Rebecca haunts the estate, which just oozes with her memory even though an apparition never appears. Plagued by the intimidating and crazy-eyed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, the narrator stumbles down the rabbit hole and manages to truly come alive by the novel’s end.
My favorite character is Mrs. Danvers, who has to be one of the best-written villians in literary history. She manages to be both mundanely real (reminding the narrator of housekeeping duties, going on about how Rebecca was really picky about sauces for lunch) and supernaturally terrifying (stalking around the unused west wing, invoking Rebecca’s name like a priest at an exorcism).
Once the story gets going at Manderley, it’s easy to get swept up in the narrator’s doubts and growing fantasies of Rebecca. Because of all the gripping build-up, the crash when the narrator discovers what really happened at Manderley makes for some delicious Gothic thrills. And the ending, which I’m not going to describe (you will totally thank me when you read the last couple of paragraphs and yell “holy Jesus!” at whoever’s unfortunate enough to be sitting next to you) contains one of the novel’s single best lines, loaded with premonition and suspense: “‘That’s not the northern lights,’ he said, ‘that’s Manderley.’”
The only reason I didn’t rate the book with a perfect five stars is because of the slow beginning, which does redeem itself once you finish the novel because you have the benefit of seeing a glimpse into the future for the pair in the first two chapters. Also, I’m not hot on the pair always being broken. At no point are the narrator and Maxim both strong, both happy, or even both functioning. Implying a man can only be strong when his wife is wringing her hands, or vice versa, doesn’t fit with my personal ethics, so I took off a little tiny tenth of a point because it doesn’t take away the fun of reading.
Rebecca is an excellent read, one of those great books that sounds impressive on your reading resumé but is as dishy a read as US Weekly. It’s one of those books I recommend to everyone: grandmas, teenagers who hate gym, people behind me in line at Starbucks, and anyone going on any kind of vacation that allows for reading 400 pages in one sitting.