Drop everything and read Rebecca by Dapne Du Maurier now. Read other entries in this series here.
I recommend reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca not because it will have a profound impact on your life (it won’t) or because it belongs in the upper echelon of contemporary literature (it doesn’t). Rather, this recommendation is intended for a very specific audience: aspiring writers. For anyone who has ever had trouble mastering the most basic and essential building blocks of good fiction (namely plot, setting and character), I can think of no better place to go for inspiration than this brilliant and engrossing mystery.
In outlining the plot of Rebecca, Du Maurier exhibits extraordinary patience. Early chapters take their time, as the narrator – a young, nameless and amusingly naïve debutante – adjusts to her new life as the second wife of grieving widower Maxim de Winter. The narrator serves as a cipher for readers as she explores the dark corners of her new life, while the atmosphere around her grows increasingly unsettling.
This tension reaches a breaking point halfway through the novel, at which point it is released like a broken dam washing over the reader. In the last 150 pages, we witness a massive costume party, a shipwreck, a murder trial and a towering fire. These are the pages readers will not be able to put down, but it is the juxtaposition between them and the more contemplative earlier scenes that give the tale true dramatic heft.
Rebecca also takes place in a setting so vivid it practically breathes (this is the aspect I found most lacking in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning film adaptation). Manderley, the English seaside estate that is Maxim’s home, evokes the simultaneous senses of wonder and foreboding as fictional gothic castles like those found in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Austen’s Northanger Abbey, but with a decidedly modern feel.
Du Maurier has stated that her loneliness for her home county of Cornwall was a primary inspiration to her writing here, and it makes a suitably strong impression on the imagery. Each page seems steeped in the raw, almost violent beauty of the region; the rhododendrons at the estate entrance are a “slaughterous red,” and cobwebs in an old abandoned boathouse form a “ghostly rigging.” This creates a visceral reaction in the reader to what, theoretically, should be scenes of upper class elegance and restraint, further exacerbating the dark clouds that gather around the story’s fringes.
This dark and stormy setting is in turn populated with a cast of richly drawn (and equally dark) characters. In the foreground is Maxim, a classic tragic hero along the lines of Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff. We also get a mysterious housekeeper, a boisterous and threatening cousin, a mentally impaired hermit and a kind and trustworthy accountant. Haunting them all is the specter of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, whose portraits and belongings are scattered about the estate as grim mementos. Her physical absence only increases her hold over the other characters, none more than the narrator:
The jig-saw pieces came together piece by piece, and the real Rebecca took shape and form before me, stepping from her shadow world like a living figure from a picture frame. Rebecca slashing at her horse; Rebecca seizing life with her two hands; Rebecca, triumphant, leaning down from the minstrels’ gallery with a smile on her lips.
Watching Rebecca’s character come fully into focus, along with the gradual unraveling of Maxim’s courtly veneer, is one of the true pleasures of this novel, and serves as a reminder of the power a well-drawn character can have simply through allusion.
In the end, Rebecca has endured simply for being a great and memorable story. Beyond the occasional melodramatic flourishes and numerous parallels to Jane Eyre, it is a page-turner with a near-perfect sense of pacing and story structure. Read this book for an utterly enjoyable crash course in building a great work of fiction out of the simplest elements possible.