by Daphne du Maurier
The narrator, an unnamed and naive young woman, marries Maxim de Winter, a gloomy widower whom she meets in Monte Carlo. Arriving at his prominent estate, Manderley, she finds herself instantly rebranded as “the second Mrs. De Winter” and is overpowered by the long shadow of Rebecca, the dead first wife, whose decoration, mores, and schedule still dominate. Rebecca’s lifelong maid, Mrs. Danvers, in particular, is cold to the new wife, constantly comparing everything she does to the way it was done by Rebecca. Eventually, the narrator learns of the terrible secret – murder – that haunts Maxim, and is the reason why Rebecca’s shadow can’t be erased from Manderley.
While it’s indisputably a classic of suspense, I was rather ambivalent about this novel. On the positive side, du Maurier paces the novel wonderfully, setting up a truly creepy atmosphere and then letting the suspense pile up unbearably before the secret is out, whereupon the nail-biting begins anew as the resolution is uncertain. On the negative side… Well, first, personally, my interest in this book was probably dimmed by my familiarity with the great Hitchcock film version, which changes very little. Second, I found the writing to be overly prolix, especially in the lavish purple prose of the opening chapters. Third, I found the narrator to be rather unsympathetic, as she had very little backbone; it isn’t that her timidity strained credulity, as her behavior in such a situation seems rather probable for a certain kind of wallflower, but it doesn’t make her more sympathetic. Finally and most damningly, I found Maxim to be a totally unsympathetic cad, not coming to his wife’s defense when she was clearly being bullied by the servants, and he clearly knew her for what she was, an unworldly and non-wealthy girl who was unused to servants. Then there’s the fact that we, the reader, have only this man’s word for what happened to Rebecca and even if it were true he seems to have admitted to killing a woman he believed to be pregnant at the time – yet he is clearly meant to be a viable love interest for the put-upon narrator.