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.