My New Favorite Novel

Author: Daphne du Maurier

“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.”
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Rebecca is a lyrical, dream-like story of first love, dark secrets, and the prevailing beauty of a world that hides tragedy, lies, and unholy attachments. Our unnamed narrator is a young girl, cast out into the world, innocent and hopeful, yet convinced of the inevitability of a dreary life. She is nothing special: a plain girl, a charity case, traveling with the wealthy and often silly Mrs. Van Hopper. When this brash patron becomes ill in Monte Carlo and the rich, darkly mysterious widower and owner of the historic Manderley Estate, Maximilian (“Maxim”) de Winter, takes a fleeting interest in our interlocutress, she indulges in a secret fantasy, a dream world. When Maxim, said to be haunted by his society wife’s recent death (the illustrious Rebecca), proposes our inexperienced and foolishly attached narrator pushes her way into a new life, even though she senses that something is deeply wrong.

The riches and beauty of Manderley with its gothic architecture, somber lavishness, and overly scented gardens makes the new Mrs. de Winter nervous. Can she live up to the first wife – the perfect wife? And what of her brooding, ever more detached husband and the whispering servants who seem to follow Rebecca’s orders from beyond the grave? What about Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s maid, with her gaunt, skull like face, who continues to pace the halls and keep the recollection and sinister desire of her former mistress alive. What is there for a poor girl, now an aloof rich man’s wife, to do? Even the townspeople continue to extol the lively Rebecca, the perfect hostess, the perfect woman. Rebecca could sail, could ride, was the life of the party and the true, living spirit of this now very funereal place . . . and the new Mrs. de Winter is the interloper. Under all this tension, all these half seen schemes, opaque looks, sliding servants in dark halls, and angry, silent men, there is something else, something hideous and unseen that will squirm its way to the surface.

I started Rebecca with no knowledge of the actual plot. I knew it was a classic and, per our yearly Christmas tradition, my husband had bought it for me along with some other surprise books (finding ones I don’t own and haven’t read is a yearly burden for him). I decided to start reading cold, and by the second page my other books were set aside and I was immersed in a story that was more experience than anything else.

Rebecca would be a great book if only for the writing, for du Maurier’s way of capturing elemental humanity, our deepest feelings and regrets. Her sentences evoke beauty and a passionate kind of pain, one filled with nostalgia and secrets and perverse, toxic love. It’s a potent mix, an elixir that spellbinds just in the reading. It’s hard to capture it in words really – I am no du Maurier – but a good part of the dark beauty in this story is the way in which it is told and the vivid sights and smells that evoke memories from our own pasts: the foolishness of new love and longing, the betraying sense of not belonging, the confusion of entering new places where everything is unknown.

With this kind of powerful writing, Rebecca is already a reader’s favorite. Add to that a twisting plot that combines the best of toxic gothic romance, mystery, and a Hitchockian sense of horror (that unforgettable, spectral Mrs. Danvers!), and you have the perfect blend of a powerful story, well told, heartrending and addictive. Our unnamed narrator pushes us into the story, front and center, and as we explore the world around her, secrets about the ever-so-perfect Rebecca and her love-affair with Max come to a throbbing, scandalous life. It’s juicy and poignant with a perfect twist ending and a bittersweet sense of longing and regret. This has since become one of my favorite novels, one of the few I see myself compulsively re-reading over the years, one of the fictional worlds that hold for me more reality than the day to day. Highly recommended for fans of a good story with all the feelings.


– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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