Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: Rebecca

I had planned to read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca during A Literary Odyssey’s Read-Along in January. Unfortunately, I experienced a rare Total Library Fail – the wild, snowy conditions kept the book from being transferred between campuses, and I didn’t receive it until the Read-Along was nearly complete. It finally did arrive, though, and since I loved the Laurence Olivier/Joan Fontaine movie, and had always wanted to read the book anyway, I decided to add it to my GLBT Reading Challenge titles.

Du Maurier weaves a wonderful and haunting tale, told completely from the perspective of The Second Mrs. de Winter, Maxim’s young wife. This gives the book the air of a mystery, since the young bride is understandably in the dark about her husband Maxim’s life before she met him. It can also make things difficult on the reader, as The Second Mrs. de Winter is very short on self-esteem, so the reader is sometimes confused by and doubtful of her high society husband’s love for her, just as she is.

No surprise, I really enjoyed the book. But the movie made such a huge impression – and now having read the book I can see how true to the novel the film adaptation was to the book –I’m afraid the novel didn’t have a chance to stand on its own for me. I found my reading of it was totally dominated by the movie – kind of like The Second Mrs. de Winter is dominated by Rebecca. And that’s too bad, because Joan Fontaine was such a lovely actress, and I couldn’t make the frumpy, déclassé Second Mrs. de Winter “be” anyone else, so I think a bit of Du Maurier’s original intention was lost on me.*

There are some differences between the book and the movie, of course. In the book, it’s clear that Manderley is more than a setting – it’s the tangible symbol of the first de Winter marriage. That marriage was dominated by Rebecca, and Manderley remains awash in a wave of scrawling “Rs” attesting to her dominance. She turned Manderley into the showpiece that Maxim always dreamed it could be. So by taking his young wife back to Manderley, Maxim doesn’t actually start a new marriage – he really brings the Second Mrs. de Winter into his and Rebecca’s unresolved union:
Rebecca, always Rebecca. Wherever I walked in Manderley, wherever I sat, even in my thoughts and in my dreams, I met Rebecca. I knew her figure now, the long slim legs, the small and narrow feet. Her shoulders, broader than mine, the capable, clever hands. Hands that could steer a boat, could hold a horse. Hands that arranged flowers, made the modesl of ships, and wrote “Max from Rebecca” on the flyleaf of a book. I knew her face too, small and oval, the clear white skin, the cloud of dark hair. I knew the scent she wore, I could guess her laughter and her smile. If I heard it, even among a thousand others, I should recognise her voice. Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca. pg. 232

You can just feel the young bride’s distress and frustration in du Maurier’s evocative writing, can’t you?

And that’s really what I feel I got most out of finally reading Rebecca: an appreciation of du Maurier’s considerable writing abilities. I loved the way she slowly built the story through the narrator’s undependable narration. I am anxious to read Jamaica Inn now, as I haven’t seen either the movie or TV adaptation.

So I have finally knocked one book off for the GLBT Challenge! I’m glad I made small commitments to such a wide range of challenges this year, because it’s really pushing me to read some books I’ve neglected until now, like this one. Thanks to Amanda, Christina and Jen for hosting!

*This is why I’m a firm believer in book-before-movie timing! Gone with the Wind wouldn’t have been the same book if I’d been primed with wimpy Leslie Howard while I was reading it the first time. Why would Scarlett have fallen to pieces over him? When I read it, I had Robert Redford in mind – handsome and romantic, but also capable of toughness. I know, I know, but give me a break, I was reading it in the 70s.


  1. Rebecca -- what is not to love? I've loved it since my mother let me watch it on Mystery back in 1980. That version isn't on DVD which makes me so sad. I've read it and reread it and I still love it -- there's also a great audiobook narrated by Anna Massey who played Mrs. Danvers in the 1980 version. When I listened to it recently I was so struck by how good the writing was -- I never realized before because I was so caught up in the story. It will always be one of my favorite books.

  2. So agree wtih you about the don't-see-the-film-before-you-read-the-book thought. I completely ruined Jane Eyre for myself that way, and I know better!

    Rebecca is just wonderful; I first read it in seventh grade, and I'll never forget the impact of the ending. Nor the aura that Daphne created. I went on to read everything she'd written that I could find, but nothing compares to Rebecca in my mind.

    (Forgive my ignorance, but how does it fit with the GLBT challenge?)

  3. Karen -- It is an amazing story, and I can imagine the audio is wonderful, because the language really does force you to slow down and take in every word.

    Bellezza -- Yes, so even when the adaptation is great, and I think Rebecca is, it does change the way your read a novel. I didn't know this either, but apparently Daphne du Maurier was bisexual. She described herself as having two distinct personalities, one "female" and the other "male."

  4. Thanks for that explanantion; who knew? (Obviously, not I!)

  5. Wish there were more books like this one; loved it. Your review was excellent.

  6. I am so excited to read this one as well. It's been sitting on my nightstand forever now; there just seems to be so many books that take on a life and personality of their own and tend to jump out of their turn in line to be read... :)


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