Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Daphne DuMaurier/REBECCA

In the 1930s, a nameless 21-year-old orphaned English girl is living as a paid companion with her employer, a detestable American woman, in Monaco on an extended holiday when circumstances force her into the company of an incredibly wealthy widower, Mr. Maximilian de Winter, the owner of the famously majestic estate Manderley. Mr. de Winter's very beautiful and beloved wife, Rebecca, drowned tragically a year earlier, and Maxim has been unwell ever since. When our young protagonist finds herself suddenly the new Mrs. de Winter, she has surprise after unpleasant surprise about the size of the shoes she has to fill. From the formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, to Maxim's aging grandmother, to the common folk who live on the Manderley estate, everyone can only talk about the beloved Rebecca, of unsurpassable beauty, kindness, generosity, class, good taste, and breeding. Will the new Mrs. de Winter survive her own crisis of confidence, or any of the darker secrets Manderley hides?

I chose this as my first book for Project Fill-in-the-Gaps because it was a birthday gift to me long ago and a classic I'd never once been able to make myself get past page 5 of. The first five pages are just so goshdarn overwrought and boring--purple description of a dream estate that no modern editor would have let happen--and I resolved to get past them. Phew.

In the end, it only took until page 6 for the whole book to come together. Aside from the unfortunate opening, the book is quite literally a page turner. When the awful opening dream sequence has ended, you are transported suddenly to Monaco, an insufferable guardian, a whirlwind romance, and then to the history-laden Manderley. For the next third of the novel you can't stop turning pages, watching the train wreck of the new Mrs. de Winter's unrecoverable social blunders--most painfully, when she answers the house telephone, which is for Mrs. de Winter, by saying, "Mrs. de Winter has been dead a year." Then there is the ill-fated ball, which we, the readers, know is going to go wrong, and almost see how, and then, the final third, is the twist you never expect. I read the second half of the novel in a single 4-hour sitting; I absolutely needed to finish it before I went to bed last night.

The book is not without its flaws. It was written in 1938, but DuMaurier doesn't suffer any of the terseness affecting trendy American prose of that era. At just under 400 fairly dense pages, the novel felt like a little bit of a heavy project at first. The plot is simultaneously slow-developing and overblown in a way very well suited to Hitchcock--who ended up being her career-long partner in crime, since he adapted several of her novels--and in some ways the potboiler elements might put off less credulous modern readers. There is the fact that the plot is less than feminist, and there are also the rather flimsy ultimate motives of the characters, and some very interesting moral questions that are left utterly hanging at the end--those of you who have read it will probably know what I mean; for the others I won't spoil it for you, although I'd love to discuss in greater detail in the comments if you have thoughts.

Ultimately, I'm very happy to have started my Great Read with Rebecca. She leaves me with so many things to talk about! Not to mention a great sense of satisfaction, and one greater than just a "one down" kind of satisfaction. I feel like I've absorbed a rather rewarding cornerstone of 20th century pop culture.

15 comments:

Amanda said...

I've heard so many good things about this book, but so far have shied away from it. I think mostly that's because at one point my husband forced me to watch the movie (it's one of his favorites) and I wasn't too impressed. It makes me worry about picking up the book, though it shouldn't because for the most part books are a million times better than their movie counterparts (The Hours being a notable exception).

moonrat said...

Amanda, I think if I'd known what was going to happen before starting to read, I wouldn't have enjoyed this book at all. Seriously, the plot DOES have its flaws. It was only the suspense that kept me going. So maybe not the book to read for you, since you already know how it all turns out...

and in that case, maybe it's good that I didn't put THE HOURS on my tbr list! I nearly did. Something stopped me.

Cheryl said...

I'm so glad you liked this book, Moonie! I recently read it for the first time and totally devoured it. I agree about the beginning being a bit slow. And the ending does sort of pull up short and leave you panting.

I have not been able to find the movie--I wish I could.

Um, didn't like The Hours. Wouldn't recommend it.

Nadine said...

I read this book about 15 years ago and loved it. A few months ago, I noticed it in my bookshelf and decided to give it another read. Even though I had already read it and knew everything that happened, I loved it and was so sad when it ended. I wanted it to keep going!

Emily Cross said...

my cousin put me off this book swearing she aged ten years trying to write an essay on it for her literature course. So i've never gotten round to reading it, thats why its on my list. Great review!!

Amanda said...

I don't remember much from the movie, but I'm sure if I began reading I'd start remembering bit by bit. And The Hours (book) is HORRIBLE. I was so disappointed. It's my favorite movie, and the book flat-out sucks.

Susan Adrian said...

Ah, I love REBECCA. But then I've always been a sucker for 30s and 40s books and movies, so the tropes don't bother me.

I never did like that dream sequence either, but once you're past that you're golden!

iasa said...

When I read Rebecca, all those years ago, I recall jumping in round page ten. Those first few pages are a killer.

Cheryl you can watch the film on youtube

Eden said...

I read this last summer (having seen the movie several times) and I really loved it. It felt very fresh & contemporary.

moonrat said...

ha! wow, i picked a good one :) and i guess i will absolutely stay away from THE HOURS. and rent the movie :)

Gina Black said...

I don't think I've read REBECCA since I was in HS (which was [koff koff] ago) and I still remember the story world that DuMaurier created. I became a huge fan and read everything else she wrote. REBECCA remained my fav of them all.

As to THE HOURS film. I wanted to shake each and every character. Not for me.

Alan said...

Gosh, Mz Mooney, I guess That I must be the only one that loved the first chapter. I read the novel when I was 12 and The description of Manderley and the rememberance of how the tragedy stayed in my mind as I recall the story. Enjoyed your review.(I still have a first edition)

moonrat said...

wow, Alan! Hang onto that! It must be worth a pretty penny!

Shelly said...

I teach Rebecca in a class I do on 20th Century literature. It is a fun way to get the course started, as it opens up discussion that carries on through the first semester about the notion of popular vs. high culture. It is always a good text to start that discussion with.

I actually read the play in high school, and later read the novel. Both are fun.

Leigh Russell said...

Love the book but I find something a bit awkward about the writing. Does anyone else feel this?