Asking people about which book they’d select for the Great American Read has been an fascinating exercise in armchair psychology this past few months–at least for me. Some folks have an immediate answer while others take some real time thinking it through.
Put me down as one in the thinking category. I couldn’t even pick 1! I finally narrowed my picks down to 3, but that was only after coming up with some perimeters to consider and pondering whether or not it should reflect personal favorites or some grand statement about the best/most influential American novel and resonant themes in American literature. (Gotta put that English degree to work every now and then.)
But, truth be told, if I were just picking one book solely on personal enjoyment, it would probably have to be Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Rebecca is the story of a nameless, milquetoast narrator who is swept off her feet in 1930s Monte Carlo by a dashing, mysterious, older English gentleman named Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind romance, they’re married, and she is ensconced in his lovely Cornish estate, Manderley.
Maxim and Ms. Narrator are happy enough as newlyweds, but the specter of Maxim’s first wife, the late Rebecca, lurks in every corner of the house. Rebecca was everything his second wife is not–glamorous, striking, charismatic. The vast differences between these two women are emphasized constantly by the stern and, quite frankly, creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Danvers adored Rebecca and delights in making her beloved mistress’s successor feel inferior every chance she gets.
It’s enough to make anyone second guess themselves and their relationship, but as our unfortunate narrator soon learns, there is far more to both her beloved Maxim and the intimidating ghost of Rebecca than meet the eye.
I’ve always been a Daphne Du Maurier fan–the woman knows how to craft a delightfully unsettling suspense thriller–and Rebecca is undoubtedly her best. I’ve read it several times, and revisiting it is a treat. From its iconic opening line (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”) to the gripping ending, it’s a hard book to put down.
Part of its appeal is good old-fashioned suspense. The book is full of all the plot twists you’d expect from the genre and is practically dripping with gothic atmosphere. However, what really sets the book apart are its characters and setting. For a character who only ever appears in flashback, Rebecca is an imposing presence, and Mrs. Danvers is a magnificently malevolent presence. The estate of Manderley is a character in its own right, too.
The book is more than just a good old-fashioned suspense story, though. The book is also a fascinating examination of love, power, gender, social class, memory, and justice. It’s the type of book that is just as much fun to discuss as it is to read, but it never comes across like a homework assignment.
So, if you haven’t read Rebecca before, drop what you’re doing and check out a copy. Actually, if you have read it before, still drop what you’re doing and check out a copy. It’s a book that rewards multiple readings.
*Ebook and audiobook also available on Libby.
Recommended for those who enjoy the Bronte sisters.
What’s your favorite Du Maurier book? Who’s your favorite creepy literary housekeeper? What books have you voted for in the Great American Read? Tell us in the comments! Please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information and to place the item on hold.
And don’t forget to vote in the Great American Read for your favorites! And don’t forget to vote in the Great American Read for your favorites! Two million votes are in and they have released a list of the current top 40!