Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca breaks all kinds of rules. It starts with the epilogue and ends without a denouement. The narrator never gets a first name. There’s a murder, but we know who did it almost from the beginning. And the housekeeper steals the show.
Rebecca famously starts with a dream. The narrator dreams of her old house, Manderley. This dream sets the tone for the entire book. Nothing seems very real after this. This isn’t a typical mystery, where the emphasize is on the facts, the evidence, the time lines. This book is about emotion. Though the narrator clearly know what’s going on, she doesn’t give you all the details. She lets them unfold as she remembers her time in Monte Carlo and at Manderley.
After a long introduction to Manderley–where we see it in its prime and after the fire–the narrator takes us back to Monte Carlo, when she was working for an obnoxious, celebrity-chasing American woman. The narrator clearly suffers from some kind of social anxiety. She worries constantly about the impression that she makes on people. She mentally cringes every time her employer forces acquaintanceships on anyone who’s been mentioned on the society pages. She catastrophizes and fantasizes about what might happen next. As I read her inner monologue, I strongly sympathized with her because when I was a teenager, it was as painfully shy as Rebecca‘s narrator. In Monte Carlo, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, a widower who clearly hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death. In just a few short weeks, she charms him (without meaning to) and they marry.
Maxim takes the narrator back to Manderley, his estate on the coast of England. As far as plots go, until the end of the book, there’s not much to talk about. The narrator struggles to fit into her new world. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, doesn’t help matters. Anyone who’s gotten an ambiguous text message or email knows that it’s hard to convey tone with words. But du Maurier somehow writes Danvers’ dialog in such a way that you can hear the scorn and sarcasm and distain in Danvers voice. She made me cringe, and she wasn’t even talking to me. Danvers is the most vivid character in the novel. No matter how much she made the narrator and I squirm, it’s a joy to read her scenes. She’s a villain without doing anything overtly villainous. Instead, she fills the house with cold uneasiness and makes life a little hell for the narrator.
The action, the mystery, stars in the last third of the book, when a small boat is found in the bay with a body on it. The body is soon identified as the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. This would be bad enough, if it weren’t for the fact that she was murdered. I won’t give the mystery away, because this is a terrific book and everyone should read it. The book loses its dreamy tone and turns into a snappy noir.
Rebecca is about emotion. Du Maurier is a genius when it comes to conveying emotion and setting. This is a book you feel. I honestly couldn’t say whether I love this book because of the portrait of social anxiety or for the mystery. I love both parts.