I’ve wanted to read the classic novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier for years, especially since Simon of the podcast The Readers is constantly mentioning it as his favorite book. I finally had a chance to listen to it on audio this summer when SYNC offered it as one of their free classics. Although it was slow to get going, I ended up enjoying it, with its many twists and turns.
The unnamed narrator begins the novel thinking back to her days at Manderley, an extravagant home in the British countryside, then takes the reader back to how her life there began. As a young girl, she was working as a companion to a wealthy woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. While there, she met an older man named Maximillan (Maxim) de Winter and fell in love with him. After a whirlwind courtship, the two of them married and honeymooned in Europe, finally returning to the renowned Manderley estate in the English countryside.
Right away, though, the new Mrs. de Winter could sense that something was amiss. The first Mrs. de Winter, a beautiful woman named Rebecca who died the year before, was still very much present in the house and in the minds of the servants, particularly Mrs. Danvers, who was obviously very devoted to Rebecca. The new Mrs. de Winter feels like a visitor in the beautiful home that carries traces of Rebecca everywhere. In addition, having come from modest means, she has no idea how to run a household like Manderley and so feels even more incompetent in Rebecca’s shadow.
Mrs. de Winter begins to notice strange things around Manderley. One whole wing of the house is left unused and has been preserved exactly as it was when Rebecca was alive. Even Rebecca’s old bedroom looks as if she is expected to return at any moment, right down to the nightclothes laid out on the bed. She becomes convinced that Maxim still loves Rebecca and that there is not room in his heart for her, too. She also feels very uncomfortable around Mrs. Danvers, who clearly is still grieving Rebecca and resents the presence of a new Mrs. de Winter. Slowly, gradually, secrets are revealed about Rebecca and her death.
The first half of the novel is fairly slow-paced, gradually building the characters and relationships and setting the scene, first in Europe and then at Manderley. Despite a vague foreshadowing of something sinister, much of the beginning of the novel reads like any period romance: the couple meet, fall in love, get married, and begin to settle into their home. In fact, my husband listened to the first half of the book with me in the car on our vacation but had no interest in continuing – there was little action or suspense, and we were both a bit annoyed with the insecure, timid Mrs. de Winter for not speaking up and just telling her new husband how she was feeling.
That all changes in the second half of the novel, as the ominous tone grows and suspicions about Rebecca and her death begin to mount. Then, the suspense builds exponentially. There is a lot of foreshadowing in the novel, which I thought was all rather obvious…until I found out that all of my guesses about what happened were wrong! Rebecca is filled with twists and turns and all kinds of unforeseen discoveries, right up until the very end.--> The audio book was very well done, with the narrator’s accent and tone adding to both the sense of place and time and the suspense.
I read a lot of Dickens in high school, and I always felt that the first third of every Dickens novel was slow and a bit dull, and then each novel seemed to pick up its pace so that I had trouble setting it down. Rebecca felt much the same to me, so perhaps this is just an older style of writing, with a slower building of suspense than what we are used to with today’s thrillers that take off at a breakneck pace right from the first page. In any case, the second half of the novel certainly redeemed its slow start for me, and I ended up enjoying the surprises that came around every corner.