Rating: 3 & ½ Stars
Published in 1938, ‘Rebecca’ has been hailed as a classic work of suspense. It also seemed like the longest book I’ve read in a while. I’ll get to that later.
The book’s un-named narrator falls hopelessly in love with recent widower Maxim de Winter when they meet in Monte Carlo. She accepts his proposal and moves to Manderley, de Winter’s ancestral manor. The very young and painfully diffident bride soon becomes obsessed with her predecessor – Rebecca, who may be gone, but is certainly not forgotten. She compares herself with the earlier Mrs. de Winter, and finds herself falling short every time. Her predicament is exacerbated by her increasingly remote husband, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, whose tangible antipathy threatens to shatter her fragile sense of self-esteem.
The book’s greatest triumph is that it’s most vibrant, dynamic character is the one whom we never see except through the words of others, and the narrator’s tortured imagination. In the fine web that the author weaves, the reader too becomes entangled by the lure of a woman so ravishingly beautiful, accomplished, and mysterious that mere mortals can but quake at her memory. Rebecca not only haunts the Manderley she conceived; her presence imbues the skein of the narrative.
As is usual in the English Manor Mystery genre, there is a brooding atmosphere that gets denser as the story progresses. The tone is set by the eerie beginning, evoking a house whose beauty is offset by a pervading sense of menace.
As for the novel seeming one of the longest that I’ve read – the fault may at least partially be my own. I approached it with every good intention, but just found myself unable to lose myself in it. Perhaps it’s because I saw the movie before I read the book [Hint: the book is better], and therefore I couldn’t enjoy the element of surprise, so crucial to any work of suspense. That wasn’t the only reason however; while the Lilith-Eve angle has a certain literary appeal, the book’s one-dimensional characterization has rendered an archetype into a stereotype. That aside, quite simply - glaciers move faster than the pace of this story.
At the risk of offending its many fans, this is one book that didn’t quite live up to its reputation.