Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Classics Project: Rebecca

I've been having trouble sleeping for the last week or so, and while that is not terribly beneficial to my physical or mental health, I have been reading. A lot.

Rebecca is a novel of romantic suspense by Daphne Du Maurier. I have a vague recollection of watching the Alfred Hitchcock movie a very long time ago, but I remembered little in the way of plot, only a vague sense of impending doom (which, to be fair, is present in all of Mr. Hitchcock's films). Interestingly, I did not realize how recent the book is. By recent I mean 1938 as opposed to sometime in the 1800s.

The start is slow. Really slow. Honestly, if this book had not been part of The Classics Project I would have given it up in favor of something more interesting. The writing often feels stilted and unnecessarily florid. As for the main character, well, let's just say I've held conversations with pillows that were more interesting than her.

The story starts off in the wealthy and transient town of Monte Carlo in the south of France. The narrator (and main character) is working as a companion to a rich, obnoxious American woman. She gets swept off her feet by the charming, intelligent, darkly moody, and recently widowed Maximillian de Winters. The very first part was interesting enough. It felt like your basic romance. There's no doubt about who the players are - the highly experienced but flawed man and the naive young girl. Yet even at the beginning a thread of suspense pervades the story that is less normal for your typical romance. This thread is strengthened and broadened as the narrator elopes with Mr. de Winters and returns to his home, Manderly.

From the beginning it is obvious that there is something very wrong with the circumstances of Mr. de Winter's late wife's death. We don't know what. We don't know why. All we know is who: Rebecca.

Rebecca is fascinating as a literary device. She's the title character. She's the catalyst for the book's conflict. And she is never once actually appears in the book. We see her only through what she left behind. Her room. Her clothes. Her monogrammed handkerchief with her elaborate capital "R." Through the memories of the Manderly staff and the local townspeople, we see her as a beautiful, vivacious woman who was good at everything (though, we learn, that is hardly the whole story). We also see her through the extended fantasies of the narrator.

The narrator constantly pits herself against this dead woman and constantly loses. She's incapable of making decisions, accepting the stern and hateful rule of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who worshiped Rebecca. She floats along in a cloud of doom and gloom that is positively exhausting. What sympathy can there be for a wet blanket of character who constantly bemoans her lack of interesting qualities? In that regard, I quite agree with her. Basically, the narrator has no agency for the first half of the book.

I was about ready to give up on the book entirely when my partner suddenly remembered having read it in high school English class. "Go on," they said. "It really picks up after the ball scene."

And it did. I hit the ball scene about five minutes after that conversation and the book finally got interesting. I won't go into details, but a secret was revealed that changed the whole scope of the novel. While the narrator is still ridiculously uninteresting, she at least begins to, you know, do things.

William Bernhardt, my writing teacher, once put it this way. Your character should struggle, not suffer. No one enjoys watching someone suffer passively chapter after chapter. Instead, we want to seem them try, attempt, rail against; we want to see them struggle. In a strange moment of self-cognizance, the book gave me this quote:

"I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth."

Which pretty much sums up what I didn't like about the book.

Honestly I think the book would have been ten times better if Mr. de Winters had been the main character. Yes, the secret twist would have been ruined, but we would have a character with action, with ability. A character that does more than bemoan her lank, overly-straight hair. Seriously.

I will say however, that the second half of the book wasn't bad. It was fast paced (especially in comparison to what had come before it). If you like a good romance and don't mind an empty narrator (a la Bella Swan), then this book might be just up your alley.

Honestly, I probably won't give Ms. du Maurier a second chance. Rebecca, her supposed opus, was mediocre at best. Ah, well. Better luck next time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Classics Project: My Antonia

It's been a while since I've reviewed a work of fiction. I've been so busy with school and other things, not to mention my recent nonfiction binge, but finally I've gotten around to it. And what a great book to jump back in with: Willa Cather's My Antonia.

My Antonia is the story of a boy growing up on the frontier of rural Nebraska, but more importantly, it's the story of a family of Bohemian immigrants and their daughter, Antonia (AN-toh-NEE-ah). Even though the story is told from the POV of the young man, Antonia is the sun his world revolves around. In a way, this is a small story. It's a coming of age story. It's a small town story. The scope is entirely limited to this one young man's life out in the prairies of Nebraska, to the people he knows, and the little pieces that make up their lives. Yet in another way, this story is as sprawling and magnificent as those fields of wheat, plowed into the land by sheer force of human will. As vast and grand as the blue sky that stretched over these pioneers bringing rain and wind and hope for a good crop.

Willa Cather skillfully paints the landscape as background and metaphor for the people who live there. Or perhaps, Antonia is the metaphor. She is strong, smart, kind. She works hard. She is never described as "pretty," instead we hear of her strong hands that can herd cattle. Her strong legs that can push a plow. Her burning, life-filled eyes that scorch themselves into the mind of one young man. She also never forgets the land that she left behind. In a way, this makes her the ultimate symbol for America. An immigrant, strong, hardworking - always pushing toward progress, but looking back to tradition, to where she came from. Idealistic, but flawed.

Because the reader experiences this story through the young man, we see his flaws arguably more than we see hers. He thinks he knows her. He thinks he's capable of understanding the world that created this young woman. He thinks it is the same world that created him. He judges her for passions, her lack of conventional propriety. He puts her up on a pedestal and pities her when she does not meet his narrow, privileged expectations. This is not to say he is an unlikable character. He's smart and has big dreams. He befriends her despite her immigrant status (or perhaps because of it). He loves the strength of her, the brightness that follows her. He chooses her over the doe-eyed Swede, Lena Lingard. But he is limited.

In a way, this book is entirely different from anything I've read before. The plot is gentle and real. There are no catastrophes, even the broken twists of life are written as normal and not melodramatically tragic. The story is as small as a single, not particularly spectacular, life, but as broad and far reaching as the prairie. Yet for me, there is something deeply familiar.

Like Antonia's family, my ancestors immigrated from Bohemia. They moved to the frontier of Nebraska, giving up their city trades, and choosing to work the land. They became part of that land. Their plows broke the soil, creating furrows of families that grew and expanded and survived. My connection to these mythical ancestors is tenuous at best. It is there in the poppyseed kolaches my mother makes. In the ridiculously vowel-barren family name on my grandmother's side (Hrdlicka; four consonants before they even get to a vowel!). It is there in the tiny, wood-bound bible I have in my china cabinet, the language foreign, but intrinsically fascinating. I don't have particulars. No detailed stories of pioneer women and their strength. It has all been blown away like sod in the prairie winds. In a way, I put these ancestors on a pedestal, just like that young man. They were idealized portraits of the attributes I find most compelling. But, like him, I will never truly understand their world.

My Antonia became something so much grander than a simple coming of age story. It filled the gaps in my roots with fertile soil, and whether the specifics are anything like the truth, it doesn't matter. Willa Cather reaches a broader truth. A resonating, simple, strong truth. She articulates that feeling of losing oneself in the vastness of the world around you, the magnificent grandeur of the past and the frontiers yet to come. In her words, "At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."