Monday, July 20, 2015

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Narrated by Anna Massey
Hachette Audio
3 September 2014
14 hours and 38 minutes
Classic Gothic
4 Stars

Audible; Goodreads

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 - resenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

I had been wanting to read Rebecca for months now, but it had been put off in favor of other books. I decided I must do it this month and chose to listen to an audio version because I have several demands on my attention at the present and can't find the time to sit with a book.

I was immediately enveloped by the story. There was intrigue and mystery from the first, and, unlike many classics, this one didn't start slowly, requiring the reader to warm to it. Furthermore, it kept me involved and in suspense all the way through. 

This is a plot-driven novel and a definite page-turner. Though I saw the twist coming early on, it didn't lessen the experience a fraction. Rather, it made me even more nervous to see how it would be revealed and then concluded. 

Our narrator is a young girl throughout most of the book, naive and innocent. When she first marries, she's idealistic and has great romantic notions of what her life will be. Yet, as she spends more time at Manderley, she becomes paranoid, insecure, and, finally, loses her innocence. She has moments of strength, but then something serves to dispirit her, and she fades to the background again. 

I feel quite ambivalent about the protagonist. On the one hand, I love her youthfulness. There is truth in her having foolish ideas of marriage, as most young brides do. Moreover, she gives the story balance as the only bright aspect. However, there are many moments when she acts so densely that I was frustrated to the point of fury toward her. I don't mind how weak of a person she is because I realize it was intentional on the part of du Maurier, and it enhances the overall story. What I disapprove of is how she never guesses at the mystery though it is often plain to see. It's not a willful denial to see truth, either, so she just appears stupid in those moments. 

Though the narrator is supposed to be the main character of the novel, the true central figure is Maxim's deceased wife, Rebecca. Though she never appears in person, she's such an important aspect that she overshadows all others. Not only does she claim the title of the work, but the new Mrs. de Winter's real name is never actually revealed. Rather than giving her an identity of her own, she is only presented as "not Rebecca." 

I expected Rebecca's character to be revealed through various flashbacks, but there weren't any. Instead, her picture is painted through the descriptions of others. She was bold, cultured, intelligent, charming, talented and beautiful, according to them. I appreciated this way of building her person because she was untouchable throughout the majority of the novel. She wasn't a person of flesh and flaws but a phantom of perfection whom couldn't be defeated. 

Besides Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers is the strongest character. Devoted to Rebecca, she is hateful toward the narrator. She is oft compared to a skeleton and is always dressed in black, which is fitting since she is the source of most of the suspense and upset. I found her to be quite mad, and she unsettled me a great deal in her psychotic worship of her former mistress. Cold and calculating, she subtly undermines the narrator, smiling as she twists the knife. Though she seems sane at first, her insanity slowly becomes apparent the more she interacts with the narrator, ultimately culminating in horrific acts.  This novel would have been sorely lacking without her. 

Finally, there is Maxim, though, truthfully, he was absent for most of the pages. Even when he was there, he was so cloistered within himself that he might not have been. Moody, withdrawn, and ever somber, he bears the scars of his wife's death. Rather than talking about it, he attempts to bury every memory; yet, this merely puts a gulf between he and his new wife and leads to misunderstanding and confusion. 

Though I didn't particularly want to be in his corner, I found myself hoping for his deliverance from every ghost. Even though I'd normally condemn his actions, I sympathized with him instead. He threw off my moral compass, which was unsettling.

The novel starts with the narrator during the present day, when she's woken from a dream about Manderley. Then, it slips into one long flashback, which comprises the rest of the novel. Though the main story takes place in the past, it's written in the present tense, as if she and the reader are just experiencing it. I liked this choice in tense because, even though I had a vague idea of the outcome of the story, it made everything seem so much more dramatic.

Daphne du Maurier's writing style is rich and atmospheric. The tone from the very outset is foreboding and eerie, but she also manages to juxtapose the beautiful with the macabre, typical of Gothic literature. Her vocabulary and structure are fairly accessible, making this an excellent choice for those uncomfortable with classic literature.

One of the major themes, of course, is social class. The narrator feels a great schism between herself and Maxim because of their difference in birth. Not only that, but she views herself as inferior to and unable to run Manderley, a view which Mrs. Danvers encourages. Yet, while preaching strict social conventions, many of the characters simultaneously break their own rules, engaging in affairs, black mail, gossip, and violence.

Another important topic is marriage, especially the social shame of failed marriage. The narrator is willing to do anything it takes to make her marriage appear successful and desperately wants Maxim to believe that they're happy together. She even goes as far as to contemplate suicide when she thinks that their relationship isn't working.

Lastly, the most controversial theme is that of justice. In Rebecca, the most heinous crime goes unpunished. Not only that, but those who know of the crime have no condemnation for the perpetrator either. The reader, too, finds him or herself identifying with the criminal and casting a vote against common law.

The new end of the novel was truly satisfying for me, even though I knew how things would conclude. I can't imagine any other ending, and I love the fact that it's not happy even though the narrator and Maxim got everything they wanted.

The narrator for the audible version was excellent. She gave each character a unique voice without serving as a distraction, and her pacing and pronunciation were excellent. I would definitely listen to her narrate again.

I really loved this book, and it's one of my favorite classics now. It gets 4.5 stars from me. 

Do you agree with my review of Rebecca? Do you have any other classic recommendations for me? Tell me in the comments. 

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Happy reading!

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