Thursday, February 17, 2005

'rebecca' by daphne du maurier

I am reading Rebecca – for the third time!

It’s the rare novel I read twice - so this book is exceptional-- in my books.

I read it the first time for the story. I read it the second because I remembered I had enjoyed it a lot the first time. I’m reading it for the third time to figure out - how does (did) Daphne du Maurier do that?

The book is an oldie - copyright 1938. I can’t think of any other books of this vintage I like. I’ve even read one other book by Du Maurier and it wasn’t memorable. But Rebecca I like. Here are some reasons:

1. The person who tells the story - the ‘I’ of the book - is unnamed. She isn’t Rebecca - that’s the other woman. I find this first-person narrator sympathetic - shy, not pretty (or at least not in her own mind), not society bred, so she does clumsy things like spills glasses of water. Yet she has a refreshing honesty and ability to see through pretense. I found myself on her side all the way.

2. I love the way the author takes us on detours from the action onto trails in the storyteller’s head. There are parts that are downright stream-of-consciousness. Here, for example, is the part where, after two wonderful weeks spent in the company of Maxim de Winter, Mrs. Hopper her boss decides it’s time to return to the States. She and Maxim will be parted:

I went into the bathroom and locked the door, and sat down on the cork mat, my head in my hands. It had happened at last, the business of going away. It was all over....I should say good-bye to him in the lounge, perhaps, before we left. A furtive, scrambled farewell, because of her, and there would be a pause, and a smile, and words like, "Yes, of course, do write," and "I’ve never thanked you properly for being so kind," and "You must forward those snapshots," "What about your address?" "Well, I’ll have to let you know." And he would light a cigarette casually, asking a passing waiter for a light, while I thought, "Four and a half more minutes to go. I shall never see him again."

3. There’s a gothic quality to parts of the book. The evil maid, Mrs. Danvers, for example, is always described in the language of death. Here’s our young bride's first impression:

"Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame....when she took my hand hers was limp and heavy, deathly cold, and it lay in mine like a lifeless thing."

All through the book, things are double-sided, not as they seem - rooms are locked, pleasant places feel sinister, people shield secrets.

4. The setting, the Cornwall estate Manderley, is gorgeous. I love living (vicariously of course) the life of an English estate wife – seeing the hedge of blooming red rhododendrons and the azaleas on the path down to the beach (although in this book the azaleas have a scent - are there scented azaleas? I've never come across any!), having Frith and Robert at my beck and call, and Clarisse, and Frank Crawley and Annie, and the quantity and variety of food served each breakfast and the tea brought in each afternoon at four, and changing each evening for dinner...

Sol Stein in his book Stein on Writing says:
"...the correct intention (for the writer) is to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encourages in everyday life. If the reader is also rewarded with insights, it is not always the result of the writer’s wisdom but of the writer’s ability to create the conditions that enable pleasure to edify."
du Maurier in this book certainly succeeds in providing that experience for me. (The Cornwall setting and portrayal of life has shades of the English domesticity of another of my favorite writers Rosamunde Pilcher.)

5. Most of all, though, I’m fascinated with the skill of the storytelling. Ms. Du Maurier has chosen a clever way to do it - using the viewpoint of the person in the story who knows the least - about the man she marries, the home he takes her to and, the kicker, his first wife. The reader, of course, knows only as much as she does, so the entire read is a mystery.

I’m almost done this third read-through. I wish I weren’t. And it’s odd, because even though I’ve read the book twice, enough time has elapsed between readings so that I’m not precisely sure what happens next - I just have feelings of intuition like a kind of clairvoyance - ‘nothing to worry about here,’ or ‘that character is dangerous’ or ‘this is going to end badly.’ That’s definitely the way for someone to read a book who doesn’t like characters to pop from behind doors and yell "Boo!"


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