Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
– Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
I’m going to say upfront that I love this book. It’s one of my favorite novels of all time. I read this unsettling tale of heartbreak and mystery about eight months ago and it’s still stuck in my mind. A few elements make it stand out as one of the greatest novels ever written.
When reading Rebecca, originally published in August 1938, I felt like I was in the presence of artistic mastery. It was the same feeling I had when I visited museums and art galleries in Italy and Britain. When I looked at the paintings of Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael, I felt a sense of awe. When I visited the Sistine Chapel, I felt like I was in the presence of art that transcended function and achieved timelessness. This is how I felt reading Rebecca. The prose is that good, and the story is that affecting.
Rebecca is a first-person narrative that follows a naive, anxious narrator on a confusing, nerve-wracking journey to the Manderley estate in the British countryside. She starts socializing with Maxim de Winter, a rich nobleman of some esteem, a shadow of a man surrounded by rumor and hearsay. They connect in an incredibly odd fashion. It fills the reader with a sense of dismay, and there’s a feeling of impending doom. The naive narrator often fails to see things that the reader sees, fails to feel and interpret things the way the reader does, and this adds to the tension in this classic tale of suspense.
When the narrator arrives at Manderley, the plot develops in an entirely unpredictable manner. The story itself is exceptional, but the exceptional prose elevates this masterpiece. Descriptions of Manderley are filled with characterization, so that as we learn about her surroundings, we also learn about the narrator herself. It’s exceptionally well done and the estate itself is dripping with character thanks to Du Maurier’s powerful control of the written word.
Very rarely in my life have I read a book that I loved for the prose, but Rebecca converted me. I usually prefer succinct writing over fancy, but that would be to malign the writing in Rebecca. Her prose is so layered, so striking and poetic, but it never reads like she’s trying hard to be profound. Some of the most powerful passages I’ve ever read communicate meaning without breaking a sweat. The effortless nature of the writing makes the overall effect all the more impressive.
The story itself is haunting, scary, tense, and incredibly emotional. This is truly a great American novel and I hope you’ll read it. Any avid reader needs to experience Rebecca at least once in their life. For myself, I plan to read it a second time one day. This is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel. A description of the Manderly estate where most of the book takes place:
Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered. The drive was a ribbon now, a thread of its former self, with gravel surface gone, and choked with grass and moss. The trees had thrown out low branches, making an impediment to progress; the gnarled roots looked like skeleton claws. Scattered here and again amongst this jungle growth I would recognize shrubs that had been landmarks in our time, things of culture and grace, hydrangeas whose blue heads had been famous. No hand had checked their progress, and they had gone native now, rearing to monster height without a bloom, black and ugly as the nameless parasites that grew beside them.
I had to resist posting even more of this striking introductory description, but I restrained. Read the book. You won’t be disappointed.