When I told family and friends that I was co-leading the 1938 Club, I encouraged anybody who was interested to contribute their own review. A few of my IRL friends have indeed been doing 1938 reading along with us, and my friend Sarah has written this fantastic review of one of my faves, Rebecca. Do make her welcome!
I have strong memories of watching Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca as a kid – the atmosphere, all in black and white, Maxim driving the heroine around in Monte Carlo, and the fancy dress party at Manderley. A few years ago I read du Maurier’s collection of short stories including The Birds – she has clearly made several strong contributions to the public consciousness.
So I came to Rebecca with some expectation, and also a sense that I knew the story. Neither mattered (and my feeling that I knew what happened was wrong, in any case!) as I was instantly drawn in. I love it when a book is so easy to get into, and you feel like you’ve been reading it for much longer than the first few pages. At various points along the way the book would bring back elements of the story that I remembered, but this didn’t bother me and I happily followed it, expecting some things and being surprised by others.
While the nameless protagonist and narrator is in many ways annoying, I found her very easy to empathise with in the first half – perhaps because I can remember being an awkward, shy girl, but also I think du Maurier does a fantastic job of bringing her character to life and making her inner monologue realistic and relatable. She goes off on involved fantasy daydreams at the drop of a hat, thinks (tamely) bitchy thoughts about her obnoxious employer Mrs Van Hopper, and for me is just the right mix of awkward, hopeful, embarrassed, daydreamy, and sullen, with bouts of confidence that then get shot down. I’ve made her sound awful! She’s not, she’s really quite endearing. And her first love/obsession for Maxim de Winter, the handsome stranger who shows her kindness and attention and entertains her in the absence of any friends at all, is really understandable and well drawn. Of course as readers, you feel that something’s not quite adding up, but it’s how du Maurier wants you to feel. You buy it; you’re along for the ride and eagerly waiting to see what will happen when they get back to Manderley.
The not-quite-right feeling that you get from the start of the relationship between Maxim and the narrator is continued and built upon once we get to Manderley, with the creepy staff, the disused wing of the house, the ‘blood red’ rhododendrons, and the obsessive references to Rebecca – for a good portion of the book it feels like she is mentioned on every page, which is obviously a device to make you feel like our narrator – to feel the oppressive, overwhelming force of Rebecca everywhere and in all the characters you meet. Here, I started to feel slightly frustrated by the spinelessness of our narrator, and the crappy attitude of Maxim (I don’t care if you’re Troubled and Brooding, you can pull yourself out of it enough to know you’re being horrible), but it didn’t really matter as I was invested in the story. I found myself trying to second guess the plot developments and the truth about Rebecca – but in an enjoyable way; trying to pick up on clues and events to work out what they meant. That sustained suspense is what du Maurier has done really effectively in this novel.
There are some lovely observations that stand out as being very much of their time – like when a dead body is discovered and an investigation must take place – and part of the ensuing chaos is that the lady of the house misses lunch, and decides they won’t change for dinner that evening. Similarly, when her husband comes under suspicion of murder, and our narrator frets that his scone is going cold. The party they host, too, sounds fabulous – if you had servants to run it for you in your stately mansion – hundreds of people in fancy dress dancing to the live band in the ballroom, with food and drink laid out, games rooms, fairy lights throughout the extensive grounds, and a fireworks display; all cleared away by the staff first thing in the morning.
In the end, the characters are not completely believable (although maybe they were more so in 1938; but I’m still genuinely puzzled by facts such as that Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter actually seem to love each other), and much of the plot is a little thin (why did Maxim marry Rebecca in the first place? Are we to believe that the sole reason why Rebecca was so despicable, so wicked, was simply that she was sleeping around and threatening to bring shame upon Manderley?! Why doesn’t Frank, Maxim’s confidante who shows the most kindness to our narrator, tell her the truth about Rebecca?).
The writing isn’t brilliant or outstanding, but it’s really good – solid, clean writing with enough description and atmosphere but that doesn’t get bogged down, and feels more modern and fresh than a book that’s nearly 80 years old.
It’s not the scariest or thrilleriest thriller that you’ll read, but despite all of the misgivings above I found it really enjoyable – a well written, compelling, interesting story that has left a fresh impression on me. I think it will continue to stand out as leaving a lasting memory, even if it’s just a sense of the suspense created, the atmosphere of Manderley, or some of the characters, like I had from watching the film around 20 years ago. I’ll definitely look forward to reading my next du Maurier.