Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier (second review for The 2015 R.I.P. X Reading Challenge)

This is my second and last review for this challenge, which is hosted by 
It runs from Sept. 1st to Oct. 31st.
Click HERE to access all of
the posted reviews.

Daphne Du Maurier
Trade Paperback, 428 pages
Virago Press, Reprint Edition, 2012
(first published 1938)
Classics,Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Suspense, Thriller

Book Synopsis: Working as a lady's companion, the heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Her future looks bleak until, on a trip to the south of France, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose sudden proposal of marriage takes her by surprise. She accepts, but whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to the ominous and brooding Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is forever kept alive by the forbidding housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers...

Not since Jane Eyre has a heroine faced such difficulty with "The Other Woman". An international bestseller that has never gone out of print, Rebecca is the haunting story of a young girl consumed by love and the struggle to find her identity.

My Review

Some books -- usually the classics -- make readers feel as if they have lived an entire lifetime in the reading of the tale enclosed between the covers. This is one of those books. it is undoubtedly a classic literary masterpiece, one that is totally unforgettable, as well as a rather unsettling one. At least, if left me with a feeling of uneasiness even as I enjoyed the lush, descriptive writing, the masterfully-drawn characters, and the highly suspenseful plot. It is highly ironic, I think, that, at the time of its publication, this novel was immediately dismissed by literary critics as popular fiction -- specifically, 'just a romance novel'.

Although the book has been compared to Jane Eyre, I feel this comparison to be unfair to its brilliant author. Du Maurier's masterpiece stands entirely on its own. True, it does fit into the genre of Gothic Fiction, as Charlotte Brontë's own masterpiece does. True, there is a huge, mysterious mansion, owned by a brooding, very wealthy man who holds a terrible secret. But there the resemblances end. 

First of all, Du Maurier's female protagonist is the very antithesis of Brontë's Jane Eyre. She is no strong feminist, but instead, a very insecure, naive young woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is employed as a lady's companion, quietly suffering the daily humiliations that accompany such employment, simply because she needs the money. She is very shy, and totally unable to stand up for herself. This is especially evident in her interactions with other characters in the novel. For instance, she doesn't confront her husband, Maxim de Winter, about his apparent indifference to her, until much later in the book. In fact, when they meet, she quickly and hopelessly falls in love with him in a few weeks' time, and, although she is surprised by his sudden marriage proposal, immediately accepts, even though she hardly knows him. One also gets the feeling that she does so not only because she does love him -- although this love is more of a girlish crush than anything else -- but because she sees an escape from her debasing situation as Mrs. Van Hopper's companion. Furthermore, she constantly craves acceptance from people, whereas Jane is entirely free from such worries. Both heroines, of course, are based on the Cinderella fairy tale, but their personalities are vastly different.

There are other differences, as well. Maxim de Winter is no Edward Rochester. His motive for marrying this young girl -- she is never named in the novel -- does not seem to be an entirely honorable one, and the reader remains in doubt as to his true feelings for her throughout most of the novel. True to the conventions of Gothic Fiction, he is a tortured man. It is the past, of course, that endlessly torments him. However, I never felt much sympathy for him, and never had a crush on him, as I had on Rochester. His personality is less passionate than Rochester's, as well; he is not as dynamically virile as the hero in Brontë's novel. Unfortunately, I even came to feel contempt for him, based on his actions in the latter part of the book.

Another difference is the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Unlike Mrs. Fairfax in Jane Eyre, this woman is a very sinister presence throughout the entire novel. She makes no secret of her hatred toward the second Mrs. de Winter, whom she violently resents for "daring to take the place of" Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. Having been her personal maid since Rebecca's childhood, Mrs. Danvers totally doted on her.

Another typical convention of Gothic Fiction is also present in this novel, and that is the symbolism of nature, as well as of the house itself, named "Manderley" in this novel. Both reflect the inner states of the narrator of the novel -- the second Mrs. de Winter. There are beautiful landscape scenes, just as there are sinister ones. The vegetation is lush, and some of the flowers -- such as the gigantic, blood-red rhododendrons -- symbolize and echo the underlying, disturbing theme of the novel. They serve as a prophetic message, and also symbolize Rebecca herself -- a beautiful woman adored by everyone, a woman who remains a mysterious presence almost to the end of the novel. 

As for the house, it, too, mirrors Rebecca. It's beautiful, comfortable, deceptively inviting, with its expertly decorated rooms, all reflecting the first Mrs. de Winter's taste. Yet, the house harbors a deadly secret. The West Wing, which had been occupied by Rebecca and Max,  is meticulously preserved by Mrs. Danvers. There are creepy passages in the house, as well, all frequented by the housekeeper, she of the 'skull's face', as described by the second Mrs. de Winter. These details give a macabre feeling to the narration.

The sea is an important symbolic element as well. It has different moods, also reflective of the second Mrs. de Winter's inner states of mind. Additionally, the sea represents Rebecca herself, with its sudden, capricious turbulence and deceptively placid surface. The sea cannot be tamed, even as Rebecca herself cannot be tamed. Also like Rebecca, the sea is a constant presence in the novel, as it is frequently mentioned by the narrator, who feels disturbed by it at several points in the novel.

The plot moves at a rather leisurely pace, with lots of beautifully descriptive passages. This is typical of literary fiction, but the book is also written this way because Du Maurier has created a novel of great psychological insights, one that reveals, in fascinating detail, the workings of the mind of a very naive young woman -- the second Mrs. de Winter -- who has self-esteem issues, a woman who, more than anything, is desperate to be loved by the man she adores, a woman who feels inferior and inadequate in the face of the memory of the first wife, one who was, as she comes to believe, based on the comments of those who had known her, someone who was far more beautiful and accomplished than she herself is. 

I was totally pulled in, totally mesmerized, as the author delved into the second Mrs. de Winter's thoughts.  How she compared herself unfavorably with Rebecca, whose memory seemed to linger along the very corridors of the house, how she totally assumed and believed that her husband still loved and could never forget his first wife -- these things were fascinating to read about. I could feel what this young woman felt, and lived through what she lived through....although I could not share her feelings for Maxim.

It's uncanny how Rebecca herself, although dead, is a central character in this novel.  A picture of this woman begins to emerge as the book progresses, and it's obviously a totally unrealistic one. No one could be that perfect. Yet, even from the grave, Rebecca dominates the events and feelings of the other characters in the novel. Her presences always overshadows and touches all the characters, especially the second Mrs. de Winter, who feels her to be a rival whom she cannot fight.

Even when the novel's central, horrible, secret is revealed, the plot doesn't move any faster. Instead, Du Maurier builds the suspense to an almost intolerable level, expertly letting the reader know little tidbits of the whole truth, sprinkling them along like bread crumbs, to be eagerly devoured by said reader. Certain things are set in motion, and this revelation is a major catalyst for the second Mrs. de Winter's rapid psychological growth, although the source of this growth totally appalled me. It also sets the stage for the novel's unexpected, and rather abrupt, end. 

Rebecca is riveting reading, especially after the revelation; I simply could not put the book down, but drove inexorably to the end, turning page after page, totally absorbed, as I accompanied  Maxim and Frank, his associate, while they went about the sordid business detailed in the last third of the novel. Although I reveled in the luscious, sonorous descriptions, in the emotions aroused in me by the characters' own feelings and actions, I still felt the uneasiness, the sense of foreboding, so expertly elicited by Du Maurier. I wanted to stop reading, as the feeling grew, as I approached the horror -- for such is what it is -- at the core of the novel. I could not stop, I had to go on to the bitter end....and again I must repeat that I have lived a lifetime in the reading of this novel. This was not my first reading of it; I originally experienced it in my late teens, and did not remember much of the plot. All I could recall was that the book had left me with a very disturbing, unpleasant feeling, similar to what I felt when I first read Wuthering Heights

Of course this book is a masterpiece, but it's the kind of masterpiece that I can't really say I wholeheartedly love, not only because of its depiction of evil, but because of its moral ambiguity. It tells a story in which evil is not totally vanquished in the end, but somehow persists beyond the pages of the book. I feel that books of this type should not be written, that authors should only give us novels in which the good definitely triumphs in the end. Some readers might feel, however, that books such as this one are necessary, in order to 'round out', or balance, the literary depiction of the human condition. That might be so, but the fact remains that such books leave me with very mixed feelings toward them. While I can admire their authors' skill at delineating character, at writing masterful prose and riveting plots full of surprising twists, they still leave me with that uneasy feeling, that certain something that tells me that the world can be a very cruel place, and evil frequently does seem to win out in the end.

Summing up, I must admit that Rebecca is a consummate work of art, unsettling as it was for me to read. I saw the Hitchcock movie years ago, and want to watch it again. As I was writing this review, I researched the film, since my memories of it are also sketchy. I discovered that Hitchcock altered the plot in one very important way, as he was concerned that the movie would otherwise not be accepted by audiences, had he left the plot as Du Maurier had originally written it.

I would like to read some of Du Maurier's other famous novels, such as Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel. It would be interesting to see whether these novels also depict stories of moral ambiguity, as I suspect they will. If so, then I will avoid reading any other books by this author.

About the Author

Daphne du Maurier was obsessed with the past. She intensively researched the lives of Francis and Anthony Bacon, the history of Cornwall, the Regency period, and nineteenth-century France and England, Above all, however, she was obsessed with her own family history, which she chronicled in Gerald: A Portrait, a biography of her father; The du Mauriers, a study of her family which focused on her grandfather, George du Maurier, the novelist and illustrator for Punch; The Glassblowers, a novel based upon the lives of her du Maurier ancestors; and Growing Pains, an autobiography that ignores nearly 50 years of her life in favour of the joyful and more romantic period of her youth. Daphne du Maurier can best be understood in terms of her remarkable and paradoxical family, the ghosts which haunted her life and fiction.

While contemporary writers were dealing critically with such subjects as the war, alienation, religion, poverty, Marxism, psychology and art, and experimenting with new techniques such as the stream of consciousness, du Maurier produced 'old-fashioned' novels with straightforward narratives that appealed to a popular audience's love of fantasy, adventure, sexuality and mystery. At an early age, she recognised that her readership was comprised principally of women, and she cultivated their loyal following through several decades by embodying their desires and dreams in her novels and short stories.

In some of her novels, however, she went beyond the technique of the formulaic romance to achieve a powerful psychological realism reflecting her intense feelings about her father, and to a lesser degree, her mother. This vision, which underlies Julius, Rebecca and The Parasites, is that of an author overwhelmed by the memory of her father's commanding presence. In Julius and The Parasites, for example, she introduces the image of a domineering but deadly father and the daring subject of incest.

In Rebecca, on the other hand, du Maurier fuses psychological realism with a sophisticated version of the Cinderella story. The nameless heroine has been saved from a life of drudgery by marrying a handsome, wealthy aristocrat, but unlike the Prince in Cinderella, Maxim de Winter is old enough to be the narrator's father. The narrator thus must do battle with "The Other Woman" - the dead Rebecca, and her witch-like surrogate, Mrs. Danvers - to win the love of her husband and father-figure.

Online Links

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: Tryst, by Elswyth Thane (first review for the R.I.P. X Reading Challenge)

This is my first review for this challenge, which is hosted by 
It runs from Sept. 1st to Oct. 31st!
To participate, just click on 
the link above.
To post your reviews, click HERE.

Elswyth Thane
Hardcover, 256 pages
Aeonian Press, Reprint Edition
January 6, 2014
(first published 1939)
Classics, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Paranormal Romance

Book Synopsis: When Sabrina Archer, a lonely girl of 17, moves with her father and aunt away from their city flat in London to the lavish summer home of Nuns Farthing for her father's work, she has nothing to do but explore the English country home. Finding a locked room at the top floor of the house, Sabrina picks the lock one afternoon and subsequently spends many days trying to discover the identity of the man who used to enjoy the personal study. He seems glamorous to her and it is inevitable that she falls in love with him. But can this obsession end happily?

My Review

There are forgotten literary treasures that should be brought out into the light of day, and enjoyed by new generations. This beautiful, poignant novel is one of them. First published in 1939, it has been reprinted several times, but is now unfortunately out of print.

The first time I read this book, I was around 17 myself, and I found it in a local library. I've never forgotten it. A few years ago, I bought one of the reprint editions available, but somehow lost it..... So I bought another one on Amazon, fortunately, at a very reasonable price. When a reader does something like this, you can be sure that the book is an extra special one!

I recommend searching for this novel in local libraries, as I'm sure they will have copies available. This is a not-to-be-missed story!

Sabrina Archer is a bookish young girl, so I was able to relate to her immediately. I was delighted to discover, right along with her, a great book collection in that mysterious, locked room. However, there's something more than just books in the room, as Sabrina gradually learns. A man's entire life and personality are in that room. Sabrina is at first fascinated and intrigued. As time goes by, she begins to fall head over heels for a man she's never met....

Hilary Shenstone is an equally compelling character. He is described, by Alice, one of the other characters in the novel, as "the last of the romantics". He is a man of high ideals, as well as a man who feels things deeply. In fact, I was a bit surprised when he didn't turn out to be a writer or poet, because he certainly had the sensitivity of either. 

Hilary and Sabrina are true soul mates.  But fate played a cruel trick on these two....Hilary died in India, while on a secret mission for the British government, before he and Sabrina ever met. 

Still, they were somehow meant for each other, and, by some mysterious circumstance, found their way to each other. 

Hilary died wishing for England, for Nuns Farthing, the house rented by Sabrina's father, a university professor who is mostly oblivious to his daughter's emotional needs, and her flighty aunt, a spinster who dotes mostly on her obnoxious dog, Bella.

Hilary's final wish comes true, and he finds himself transported back to London. From there, he eventually finds his way back to Nuns Farthing, and finally meets Sabrina, who totally enchants him.

This is a very intimate novel in the sense that Thane gets inside her main characters' heads, exploring their emotions, thoughts, and spiritual longings in a very detailed way. In contrast, the reader doesn't get to know the rest of the characters as well as Sabrina and Hilary. Simply put, the other characters are shallow, except for Mrs. Pilton, the housekeeper, whose reticence hides a world of deep thoughts and emotions.

The characterizations and social environment in this novel are perfect. In many passages, Thane reminds me of Jane Austen; she's an acute observer of all the foibles of human nature, and of the English society of the time. This is all the more remarkable because she was an American writer, born and bred. 

Although she reserves the most complete portrayals for Sabrina and Hilary, the other characters are well brought to life, too. They serve as a marked contrast to the two lovers. All the other characters in the novel are rather self-centered, too, interested only in achieving their own goals, some of them even at the expense of others.

George Shenstone is certainly totally different from his brother. There is no depth to him; his emotions are limited to whatever information his senses give him. He's only interested in whatever pleasure he can get in the here and now. And he certainly doesn't share Hilary's ideals and scruples. 

His mother tells him, while he's visiting her one day, that she has always preferred him over Hilary. She has her own reasons for this, all tied to her marriage, which had not been a happy one.

Alice, Hilary's girlfriend at the beginning of the story, is not a good match for him, something she's just starting to discover when we meet her. She is a rather materialistic person, with none of Sabrina's gentle, shy, bookish nature. In fact, she is as much a contrast to Sabrina as George is to Hilary. 

As for Sabrina's family, they are comical and pathetic at the same time. Alan Archer, Sabrina's father, is a university professor intent on doing research on primitive man for a book he plans to write. This is his overriding concern, and he seriously, and unwittingly, neglects his own daughter. 

His sister, known to Sabrina as Aunt Effie, is a silly woman who also allows the opinions of the society of the time to influence her own thoughts and opinions. She, too, fails to see just how special Sabrina is. 

Both siblings mean well where Sabrina is concerned, but are unable to give her the emotional and spiritual support she so desperately needs. Nor are they able to enter her intellectual world, for Effie is not interested in books, and Alan is exclusively interested in his research, and will only read books and articles related to it.

So Sabrina is left very much to her own devices. She is also by nature a solitary girl, since she has found no one to share her inner concerns.

Until Hilary arrives, that is.

Hilary is the only person in her life who really understands her, who really knows her, in fact. He shares her worldview -- one of high ideals and lofty goals. Unfortunately, since he is a ghost, he is unable to help Sabrina live the life she was meant to live. She can only sense his presence, but can neither see nor hear him, although he does speak to her. He's already tried speaking with his friends in London, with his own family, but, of course, no one can hear him.

It's just beautiful to become totally immersed in this novel, to see how Sabrina and Hilary care so much for each other. In spite of the obvious communication barrier that makes their relationship a difficult one, they become inseparable, and their final destiny is to be together.

Perhaps the novel's most fascinating aspect is that the romance of the two protagonists is solely based on the compatibility of two souls, to the exclusion of any physical passion. This type of romance might not be for everyone, especially those who enjoy reading so-called "bodice-rippers" or more sensual romances. However, this novel will be very satisfying to those who, like me, enjoy reading about the emotional development between two lovers, even at the occasional exclusion of the physical aspect. After all, if there's no union or compatibility at the inner level, all the fire and passion on the physical level will never be enough to sustain a relationship.

The beautiful, graceful prose style of this novel is clearly  classic, and I find it incredible that it is not better appreciated by lovers of classics and literary fiction. Although I have yet to read other novels by this author, I can see that her style and subject matter place her in the genre of classic literary fiction.

This is a very sweet, touching, and totally wonderful, beautiful book, one that, again, is unforgettable. It saddens me to know that no major studio has ever decided to turn it into a film. Why no one thought of doing so, at the time of its original publication, is beyond me. I would have loved to see this as a black-and-white movie, made in the forties or early fifties. I'm not sure who could have played these characters, but I am sure that it would have been a great movie!

There are two movies by the name of "Tryst"; one was filmed in 1994, and the other in 2005. Neither one has anything to do with this novel. Unfortunately, this jewel of a book has still not been filmed.

Read this novel so you can be carried away by a love that transcends even the barriers of death, a love that will make you feel nostalgic, happy and sad, all at the same time.

About the Author

Elswyth Thane was born on May 16, 1900, and died on July 31, 1984. She was an American romance novelist from Burlington, Iowa. Her original name was Helen Ricker, which she later changed to "Elswyth Thane". 
She was not only a novelist, but a journalist and screenwriter, as well. 
Thane is most well-known for her series of historical novels, all set in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, although later books were set in cities such as New York, Richmond, Virginia, and England.
She married the naturalist and explorer, William Beebe, in 1927.
Tryst is considered her most romantic novel.

Online Links

Saturday, October 3, 2015

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril X Reading Challenge, 2015

(Image created by the highly talented Abigail Larson, used with permission)

This is a very interesting Halloween reading challenge I have recently come across. Originally hosted by Carl @ Stainless Steel Droppings, it's now hosted by Andi and Heather @ The Estella Society.

This challenge has been going strong for TEN years now, which is truly remarkable! I've visited some of the blogs that have already signed up this year, and am very intrigued by the interesting reads chosen by these bloggers.

Books selected for the challenge must have some connection with one or more of the following genres: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, Gothic, horror, supernatural. Alternatively, as Andi and Heather put it, these reads could be "anything sufficiently moody", or related to these genres.

Both of the books I have picked are re-reads; they are also two of my all-time favorite classics. They both fit in the R.I.P. X categories above. The first one, Tryst, is a paranormal romance novel, and is not that well-known, unfortunately. The second, Rebecca, is quite famous, and is in the mystery/suspense/thriller categories, with a hint of the supernatural, as well.

This challenge began on Sept. 1st, and will continue until Oct. 31st.

There are several levels of participation, according to the number of books to be read, and so forth. 

These are the books I will be reading, and the level I have selected.

Peril The Second
Read two books of any length that you believe
fit within the R.I.P. categories.

I'm really looking forward to this challenge! I'd love to attempt to read more books, but lack of time prevents me from doing so.... 

For more information, and to sign up for this great, fun challenge, please visit the challenge page @ The Estella Society.