In all of the novels I’ve read by Daphne du Maurier, the narrator was an outsider who had to make her way in a place with decades of secrets to be penetrated. There is an outsider in My Cousin Rachel, but our narrator is very much an insider. Philip Ashley was raised by an older cousin and a staff made up almost entirely of men. The only women he met were the vicar’s wife and daughters and his godfather’s daughter. His older cousin, Ambrose, brought Philip up thinking there was nothing wrong living apart from women. More, Philip grew up thinking that women were interfering, bothersome creatures best avoided. It was the shock of his young life when Ambrose decided to get married to the titular cousin Rachel.
Ambrose’s health suffers during the harsh Cornish winters. His doctor prescribed travel to the Mediterranean during the winter. Two blameless winters pass and all is well. In the third winter, while in Florence, Ambrose meets Rachel Sangaletti, a distant cousin, and marries her within months. Within a year, Ambrose is dead from a mysterious illness. Philip is immediately suspicious. He was disinclined to like any woman, let alone one who snatched his uncle away from him. Philip is clearly an unreliable narrator and he spends most of the book looking for signs of Rachel’s complicity in Ambrose’s death.
When Rachel comes to Cornwall to live with her husband’s friends and relations, eventually sharing a home with Philip, the novel becomes a game of cat and mouse between Philip and Rachel and between Philip and the reader. We don’t know how much we can trust Philip’s version of events. Is Rachel innocent and just misunderstood? Is she a much better actress than she appears to be? Everything and nothing might be a red herring.
I picked this book up because several book bloggers I follow have read it and their descriptions piqued my interest. I’m a sucker for unreliable narrators and I adored Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier has a talent for creating almost unbearable tension with just a hint of suspicion and subtext. My Cousin Rachel is not my favorite. Philip was too unpleasant (that is to say, misogynistic) narrator for me, but I did enjoy watching him tie himself in knots about his cousin.