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.

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