Rebecca

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

finished this book for the umpteenth time over 4 months ago, and I loved it just as much as every other time that I’ve read it. So you’d think a review would have been easy, but this is a complicated book to talk about without giving too much away. I tried getting my thoughts in order right after finishing it but with moving into a new house about the same time, taking care of 4 kids, and training for a marathon I just ran out of time and brain power for awhile. Now the marathon is over and there seems to be a brief calm in the storm of house and yard projects so I think I might have enough focus for a review. I’m sure the package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Oreos I just finished off will help me focus too.

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A young and inexperienced lady’s maid is quickly and surprisingly swept of her feet by the wealthy and charming widower, Maxim de Winter. They are married quickly and return to his estate where the new Mrs. de Winter tries to find her place in a way of life she knows nothing about, and where the memory of Max’s first wife seems to overshadow every room, conversation, and event.  Rebecca’s power from beyond the grave haunts the new, timid bride until all hope for the marriage seems lost. But when the past resurfaces assumptions are questioned and hard choices have to be made.

My Review

This time reading Rebecca I noticed much more how little action there really is in the plot and yet I still consider this one of the greatest and suspense books of all time. So I have to ask myself, what is it that rivets me? What really makes it so great?

Well to start the writing is a work of art. Such intelligent and insightful description without being pompous or overdone. On the first page we read, “Nature had come into her own again and little by little in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.” Describing an overgrown driveway like this gives not only a visual, but also a feeling. Giving nature a persona, making it a character, continues throughout the book. The descriptions truly give nature power and influence in not just the setting but in the events as well. Nature also plays the role of clairvoyant; it provides omens of the events to come, good or bad.

The method of plot development is also very unique. As I said, not that much actually happens in the book. There are a few events that occur, but the true conflict in the story is rooted in something that happened in the characters’ pasts. To reveal that past and to develop how it affects the present there is so much storytelling that happens within the head of the first-person narrator. Her own misconceptions provide the plot base for pretty much the whole first half of the book and then a major revelation and her having to realign her misconceptions is essentially the plot for the second half. That could sound pretty boring – a story happening inside a character’s mind much of the time – but Du Maurier masterfully builds tension through description that makes the pages come alive and characterizations that resurrect ghosts.

Some of the most intriguing characterization comes from the contrast in the narrator and Rebecca. Just their names give insight – the first name of our plain, quiet, unassuming narrator is never given. After she and Max are married she is Mrs. de Winter and we are given no other title with which to identify her. She is the narrator and main character, but the title of the book is “Rebecca.” Rebecca is the name we all know and love, or dread depending on the perspective. Just this little detail in the use of character names reveals so much about the characters themselves as well as the book’s themes.

Ah, and the themes in this book! This is where it becomes difficult to not give too much away. My previous post discussed one theme – choices and consequences and how misconceptions affect both. Mrs. De Winter spends so much time living out “what if’s” in her mind, playing out elaborate scenarios which have such detail that we as readers and the narrator take them to be reality.

The theme that makes this book unique and, so I’ve been told, even controversial in some book clubs, is determining the morality of the character’s actions. Do their motivations matter? Should the choices of others be taken into consideration? Is justice served at the end? Not only do we analyze the character’s choices and the resulting consequences, but we get to ask ourselves how we feel about them. We know what is wrong and right according to law and our conscience. Do the events of this book go against that knowledge? Is your heart reacting differently than you think it should? I have spoken with some who were uncomfortable confronting these kind of “greys” in the moral spectrum, but they are what take this book beyond being just a beautifully written and suspenseful romance and into the realm of a Classic.

Age Recommendation: High School age and older. Definitely for mature readers. I wouldn’t say the writing is difficult to read, but it is more “old-fashioned” and intelligent than your average work of fiction. The themes and events of the book also need a discerning mind.

Appropriateness: I would recommend it for any book club or high school and college English class, but as I said, there are some who have found it more controversial. But that just gives even more material for great discussion! No offensive or off-color language that I remember. No detailed sexual content, just married couple kissing and some reference that indicates a married couple were intimate.

Book Recommendations: If you like Rebecca I recommend Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphme Du Maurier. You may also like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak,  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Eruption by Adrienne Quintana.

If you have already read the book….

Here some of the ingenious aspects and insights that I loved reading Rebecca this time:

  1. On page 36 The narrator talks about wanting to bottle memory and I could so relate! There are just those perfect moments that you wish you could somehow keep forever just the way they are. How would it be to uncork the memory at some later date and have it to relive all over again? But isn’t that the irony?  Those moments are so perfect because we are completely IN them.  We are present, not worried about the past or future, just there. I can relate to the narrator’s melancholy that comes afterward as well, when you realize you can’t bottle the memory and it will fade. The joy and sadness combined make the moment that much more powerful.
  2. On page 44 the narrator describes how traveling changes you.  You leave something behind whenever you a leave a place while at the same time part of that place comes with you and makes you a different person than you were before.  I love that about traveling.  And I love that reading books can have the same effect.
  3. In Chapter 15 Mrs. De Winter goes to visit Maxim’s grandmother.  She compares the elderly to children. They can both be a hassle and tiring, but we try to be polite anyway. She points out though, that we can remember being children and so can better understand them; maybe that gives us more patience.  We have not been old yet and so may not be able to relate as well. But as Mrs. De Winter thinks about how the grandmother may have been as a young lady, it gives her more sympathy.  My grandmother is declining with alzheimer’s and I could completely relate to the thoughts and feelings expressed.
  4. It’s fascinating how reading the book for the first time you can get caught up in the idea that Maxim must still be in love with Rebecca. The way Mrs. De Winter perceives all the events, descriptions, and interactions sure makes it seem that way.  And Rebecca played her deception well. But when you read it again know the truth there are so many hints and clues to the true nature of Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship.
  5. I have always been amazed at the clear picture of Rebecca that is painted for us and for Mrs. De Winter. She is dead from the start of the book and yet we learn more about her than we do of the narrator.  Of course because she is dead, all we know about Rebecca comes from people’s descriptions of her beauty and talents, and from the things she left behind. Her handwriting, her clothes, her coat, her smell, her habits as described by the staff, and her style still left at Manderley give Rebecca presence and influence even beyond the grave.  However, none of these things reveal her character and so we can be misled just like Mrs. De Winter.

View all my reviews

Rebecca – just a little taste

Rhododendron – you’ll never look at them the same after reading this book.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  These words are like an old friend. They set the stage for the beautiful mystery that is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.

We moved to a new house a few weeks ago so reading has been a luxury I’ve given up the last month or so in order to do packing and unpacking. But tonight I wanted to escape into a story for awhile.  Maybe because my focus has been on our house recently I was drawn to a story in which a house plays such a significant role. You could say that the Manderley estate is one of the characters in Rebecca.  It’s the first thing we are introduced to; it’s the first chapter and the first line.

I was only able to read a chapter and a half tonight, but the beauty of the prose and the genius description in just those few pages completely pulled me in. “Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.” Talk about perfection in verb and adjective usage. Du Maurier was an artist; she knew how to paint a picture with words.

This book makes it into my top 5 favorites. I have read it so many times I’ve lost count, and I can’t wait to get lost in its pages again. I’m looking forward to having a forum this time in which I can share the greatness of Rebecca with others, so I will keep my actual book review for after I finish, but this book is just SO GOOD right from the start that I had to share some love now. If you haven’t read Rebecca pick it up and let’s journey through it’s intricate characterization and haunting beauty together.

The “how” of reviewing (part 2) – story elements

Story Elements

My 2nd grade daughter has been learning about the elements of a good story. These include setting, characters, plot, conflict, and theme. Sound familiar? Pretty basic stuff. We all have heard about these aspects of storytelling since at least the 2nd grade, but hopefully that doesn’t make them seem worn out. They are in fact just as essential to making a good story as our elementary school teachers taught us. It is really difficult to feel interested and satisfied by a story that is missing any one of these elements or that incorporates them badly.  Consider early reader books – “See Jane run. See Dick run. Dick and Jane run.” This may certainly be helpful in a child learning to decode the word “run” but it doesn’t give any drive to keep reading to find out what happens. That’s because nothing happens. The book is missing a plot and a conflict and therefore is also missing people who want to read it.

The most important story element for me is probably characters. I need to connect with the people in a book so that I actually care what happens to them. Otherwise I just have no interest in reading even the most exciting of plots. Stardust by Neil Gaiman was such an interesting story idea and yet the characters were so one dimensional that I didn’t really care to find out what happened to them. On the flipside great characters can make even those most normal of plot events inspiring. Anne of Green Gables is a perfect example of this. Anne Shirley is a dynamic and relatable character so reading about even a simple walk past “the lake of shining waters” is engaging.

Characters must also be consistent. We need to know what motivates them to act the way they do and then their decisions and actions throughout the book must align with those motivations. And if the character undergoes a change of heart then the catalyt(s) for such a change must be explained well enough that we can believe they would truly spur that change in the character. Without that consistency the characters will be difficult to understand, to relate to, to believe in, and therefore to care about.

Theme is a necessary story element, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be provided by the author. The best book themes are those that the reader gets to discover, and that means there can be as many themes in a book as there are people who read it. I find that books where the author preaches the theme in no uncertain terms, those in which we are told bluntly what it is we are supposed to learn are generally bland and sometimes annoying. Even if the message is a positive one, one that we completely agree with it can be unsatisfying to have it spoon fed to us. It takes away some of the power and meaning if I don’t get to use my own capacities for observation and perception to unearth how a book is applicable to my life. The best stories present the events and happenings and leave the analysis and judgment to us.

The Secret Garden

Miracles on Maple Hill is a book that I found to preach too much. The theme of the healing and restorative powers of nature is a truth I wholeheartedly embrace. My own life experience shows me it is true, but in Miracles on Maple Hill that theme is presented so directly that it feels trite and maybe even cheesy rather than inspiring. (You can read my full review of that book here.) Contrast that with the way the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett presents the same theme. In that story nature almost becomes one of the characters and its interactions with the rest of the cast show us its power to transform, but we are given the opportunity to unearth that conclusion for ourselves. The book and its message become a journey and a memory rather than a sermon.

The way an author presents the rest of the story is just as important as the presentation of the theme. Checkout my next post, Part 3 of The “how” of reviewing, for more.