I’ve been sick for what seems to be the last decade, but a calendar suggests it’s only been about eight days. Nevertheless, illness has been cramping my style. For a while, I was too miserable to even read, which is a new low for me.
(You know how when you go to the doctor and she asks you to rate your pain based on a set of faces ranging from happy to grumpy? The lowest one should just be a book with an x through it. That’s my low.)
Anyway, I’m kind of back, and I started reading again last night. I’m re-reading an old favorite for a directed studies group I’m leading. After all these years, I still adore Catcher in the Rye.
Every few years, I get the urge to re-read Rebecca. I know it’s a book that a lot of readers find at an early age, but I didn’t. I was in graduate school the first time I read it upon recommendation of my most readerly friend.
I started it at the laundromat and was so engrossed that I left an entire washing machine full of wet clothes and had to trek back the next day to re-wash a garbage bag of mildew-y clothes. I re-read it about ten summers ago and got so engrossed in it that I barely went outside for a couple of days until I finished. I vowed to read it again after I recently drove past a bus stop near work and saw my friend Ashley immersed in my battered copy—the very copy I’d foisted on her when I heard she’d never read it—while she waited for the bus. Around the same time, I found a nicer copy at a used book shop and decided it was fate. It was time to re-read it. This time around, I vowed to pay attention to what it was that had so captivated me about the book.
An unsophisticated young girl marries a powerful and mysterious man named Maxim de Winter. She is woefully unequipped to be the mistress of his ancestral estate, and he’s kind of a dick about it. Oh, and the dude’s deceased wife, Rebecca, seems to linger everywhere the narrator turns.
Reasons to Read It
The spooky atmosphere. The first time I read it, I remember loving the suspense. Was Rebecca really dead? Was she a ghost? Was she coming back? Even knowing the twist in the story this time around, I still felt the spooky atmosphere, particularly of Max’s estate, Manderley. I can clearly picture it: a dark, damp manor house somewhere by the sea in England filled with secrets. I’ve never been in such a house, but I can imagine how overwhelming it must feel for the narrator, a girl who hasn’t the slightest idea how to live in such a stately manor (and manner).
The narrator. I love narrators who aren’t immediately likeable or relatable. This unnamed narrator is basically a lump of cold oatmeal. She’s ridiculously naïve and so socially awkward that I sometimes found it uncomfortable being in her head. She’s such a milk sop that she doesn’t even have a name. Rebecca looms large, not just in Maxim’s mind. Nobody can stop thinking and talking about Rebecca. Even wecan’t stop thinking about her because her name shows up on almost every page. Our narrator with the limp hair and the stained dress is so blah and boring that we as readers join her in wondering what in the world Maxim sees in her. But the narrator’s plainness is part of what makes the book so juicy. Why would Maxim marry her? Why is she so terribly awkward? Is she telling us the whole story? Or is she missing key parts of it? Can we trust her? Can we trust her perception of Maxim?
The plot. The overall story is a little rough around the edges, something I didn’t notice the first couple of times I read it. But it still holds up. I’d forgotten how it ended and found myself hoping that the narrator would run off with Frank, Maxim’s agent. (I’ll let you find out if that happens or not.) The point is that even reading it three or four times, I still found the story deliciously dark and twisty. I didn’t forget about my laundry, but I did feel sufficiently swept away.
Reasons to Give It the Side-Eye
A doormat heroine. The narrator has weird daddy issues going on, and she’s not afraid to talk about them. She’s totally willing to be Maxim’s doormat as long as he’ll let her. He doesn’t even have to love her back. She’s content just to be in his presence. She loves him so much it’s kind of embarrassing. As readers, we suspect that he’s with her because she’s the anti-Rebecca, not because he has any real feelings for her. She’s like that person in high school who can’t stop talking about her crush on the guy who “lets” her wash his car and cook him dinner.
One dimensional foes. The Mrs. Danvers character is pretty irredeemable. And it’s really boring and offensive when the might-be-gay character is presented as evil, possibly as a result of her secret love. I know the book was written in 1938, but it would be nice if queer characters (if that’s what Mrs. Danvers is meant to portray) could be presented as fully human. If anyone ever does an update of the book (and I hope they do), I want Mrs. Danvers to get more depth of character.
Same thing holds for Rebecca. She’s just too bad to be true. After I finished reading the book this time around, I wondered if maybe we are meant to believe that the way Maxim presents Rebecca to the narrator is all part of his borderline personality disorder and his inability to accept Rebecca as she was. (That’s my diagnosis, by the way.)
All of this is to say that the novel needs a good re-visioning. In this new novel, we find out that Maxim is a habitual liar who uses women who are needy enough to marry him. And possibly he ends up with a nasty case of syphilis.
Maxim is a dick. Did I mention that already? It’s hard to swoon over a dude who is this insecure and who essentially marries a child in order to let her take care of him. Ick.
What I Learned (or Re-learned)
Living in a gothic mansion in England is probably really boring and cold. I’d forgotten how many fires had to be lit in the dead of summer. I’d forgotten how many menus had to be approved—how many breakfasts and teas required specific instruction from the mistress of the house. It must be mind-numbing to spend all morning ordering the staff to poach the quail and warm the crumpets. And the social calls! What a nightmare. There’s nothing particularly appealing about being a wealthy society person. It all just sounds boring, but it’s fun to read about.
A good plot is all about pacing and timing. Du Maurier is really good at carefully doling out little details to keep you wondering and reading. Only upon re-reading was I able to see how masterfully plotted the book is. She’s dropping little clues throughout the novel. And she’s not afraid of letting readers feel uncomfortable as we wait for explanations.
Young me was dumb. The first time I read this book, I was in my mid-20s. But I was still dumb enough to think that a man who needed saving was worth it. I remember thinking that Maxim and the narrator’s relationship was romantic. What? Really? What was I thinking?
Sixteen years later or so, and I cannot for the life of me remember what I ever thought was appealing about their relationship. If I met the narrator now, I’d probably start a Kickstarter for her. She should definitely consider leaving Manderley with her art books and apply for university or get some kind of technical training.
Worth Reading? Yup, you bet it is. Go do it right now.