2.13.2015

Rebecca, by Daphne duMaurier

I expected to like and enjoy this book; I did not at all expect the passion I ended up feeling for this book. I stayed up until 1 am on a worknight unable to put it down! The next night I binge-watched the BBC mini-series! This book was a ridiculous amount of fun to read, the prose was excellent, and the author held together what should have been (well, which kind of is) a ridiculous plot with amazing aplomb, pulling off some special effects along the way.

Here's the basic deal with Rebecca (non-spoiler paragraph to come; all of this you can get from the back cover or the first few pages): Young innocent girl falls in love with billionaire (well, this is Britain between the wars, so not billionaire but landed gentry) Maxim DeWinter, who has a Tragic Past: his wife, Rebecca, died just a year ago. He meets our ingenue (who remains unnamed throughout the book), marries her, and carries her off to his ancestral home, Manderly, where our heroine has to make sense of the past.

It's a classic gothic romance that more than lives up to expectations. It can be read and enjoyed even by those who have zero interest in gothic romances. I don't want to try to tell you about my love for this book while trying to hide what happens, so: spoilers behind the cut!

If you don't want to read it, there is a BBC miniseries starring Jeremy Brett (swoon) that I have now also watched. It hews very closely to the text, almost all of the dialogue being lifted straight from the book. Recommended!

Spoilers away!




I'm just going to lay it out there, and then explain why I think this was so masterfully done:

Rebecca turns out to have been a manipulative sadist. She hated everyone, particularly her husband, and was in the marriage for the money. She beat horses, tormented the village simpleton, and manipulated everyone around her into loving her until she could orchestrate their downfall for her pleasure. She had a lover to whom she promised marriage to to his face and mocked behind his back. Etc.

She discovers she has a terminal illness that will rapidly become painful, and apparently decides she wants to die. She goads her husband into a murderous rage by telling that she is pregnant by another man and instead of separating from him, plans to raise the child as his and continue to make his life miserable. He kills her, an act which haunts him.

Yes, totally improbable plot — but done so, so well.

First of all the buildup to all of these revelations (most of which come out in Maxim's impassioned confession to his wife) was just superb. Usually such revelatory confessions are either a "no shit, Sherlock" moment or they are so out of left field that they are unbelievable. This book balanced on an amazing tightrope strung between the two extremes.

I suspected Maxim of Rebecca's murder fairly early on in the book, but just enough information was withheld that when he did confess, it still came as a shock. My internal monologue went along the lines of: "WHOA! I mean, I thought he did, but: WHOA!"

The hints about Rebecca being kind of evil were similarly clever. They come out in little anecdotes about her, the way the village simpleton is terrified of even her memory, the awkward things people sometimes say about her. It was convincing enough that when Maxim says it, it rings true rather than as the rationalization of a murderer (though it's that too), and yet subtle enough that I wasn't totally there before the Confession Scene.

The book made me side with the murderer. I couldn't help myself. It was like reading Lolita in a way; everything in the book is on the murderer's side, and so I was inexorably drawn to seeing things from his point of view. It was hella creepy and well done and I loved it.

The character development was great. Our heroine starts off the book as sort of a blank slate. I'd just finished reading Jennifer Armintrout's hilarious 50 Shades of Grey recap, and for the first part of the book, she reminded me of a better written Ana. Spineless, colorless, and incredibly frustrating in her lack of character. But oh, how she changes — or at least, how we are shown other sides of her character!

When her husband confesses to her, though, her primary emotion is not horror but rather relief that he had hated his ex-wife, not loved her (as most of the book she spends tortured by his apparent devotion to her memory); this is either touchingly loyal or creepily amoral or both. For the last few chapters, she becomes an enthusiastic accomplice-after-the-fact in covering up the murder, facing down blackmailers and magistrates alike with an amazing cool aplomb. What brings this out in her is, apparently, security in the Love of a Man, but it worked; her insecurity had been carefully laid out throughout the course of the novel as the source of much of her spinelessness, and once this resolved, she changed in response. It was well-done.

I was amazed at duMaurier's ability to keep the plot twisting even after I kept thinking that the final domino had fallen. When Maxim confesses, neither he nor the reader knows the last detail: that Rebecca was terminally ill and had wanted to die. I thought the remaining chapters were going to be either about the unraveling of his life or possibly about how he avoided the unraveling. It ended up being both of those things, but also added that last twist.

While I enjoyed being "jumped" by that one, that detail was the least well foreshadowed of all of them. I think it would have worked better to make Maxim more morally ambiguous if her desire to die had been clearer.

Anyway. Rebecca is a murder mystery thriller that reads like a gothic romance and I adored every atmospheric minute of it. A definite re-read for me.