My Cousin Rachel

Surely I’m not the only person out there who has considered herself a Daphne du Maurier fan for years despite only having read one novel (Rebecca) and one short story (“The Birds”) by her. The truth is, I’ve meant to read more for years, but I seem to get my du Maurier moods confused with my Rebecca moods and so I read Rebecca again and never branch out. But Simon and Polly‘s Discovering Daphne celebration this month reminded me once again that I need to expand my du Maurier reading. I don’t happen to have any of the books featured in the celebration, but I do have a copy of her 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel, so I decided to join the celebration in an unofficial capacity by finally reading it.

Philip Ashley, the narrator of My Cousin Rachel, was orphaned as a baby and has spent his whole life in the kind and generous care of his bachelor uncle Ambrose. It’s been an excellent arrangement all around, giving Philip a home and Ambrose an heir. Everything changes when Ambrose journeys to Europe for his health and there meets and marries a distant Italian cousin, a widowed contessa named Rachel. Philip, who is more than a little spoiled and accustomed to being the center of his uncle’s world, is immediately jealous of this interloper. Before long, his jealousy turns to suspicion of her motives. But then he meets her, and a wholly different emotion takes over.

The brilliant thing about this book is that Rachel herself remains a mystery from beginning to end. We meet her, we observe her, we get lots of information about her activities—but we never get inside her head. Everything she does can be construed in multiple ways. Is she a gold-digger? Is she just extravagant? Is she a kind and tender nurse to her ailing husband? Is she a plotter? Is she an innocent? Is she a poisoner? It seems clear that she likes to spend money—a lot of it—but being a profligate spender is a long way from being a murderess. But what are we to make of Ambrose’s accusatory letters? Are they the ravings of a dying man? Or are they final pleas of a man being slowly put to death? Even when the book ends, none of these answers are clear. I have my suspicions, but another reader could make a good case for the opposing view. The case for both sides is so strong that I wonder whether du Maurier herself took a position.

What complicates the reader’s quest for answers is the nature of our narrator. Philip is impulsive and highly emotional. He’s quick to give in to whims, and once he’s decided on a course of action (usually a stupid one), he will not budge. He’s a genial enough fellow, I suppose, but he’s immature even for his 24 years. I didn’t like him at all, and for most of the book, the contrarian in me just assumed his interpretations of Rachel’s actions were wrong because he clearly doesn’t have the sense God gave a fence post. When his opinions about Rachel changed, so did mine, almost always to take the opposite view from his. Then there’s always the question of how honest Philip is being in what he chooses to divulge. I don’t think he quite lies to the reader, but perhaps he’d rather be perceived as stupid and naive than not.

If you like books that keep you guessing right up until—and even long past—the end, you ought to give My Cousin Rachel a try. It may be the giddy after-effects of the slam-bang ending talking, but I think this novel stands right up there with Rebecca. So now when I’m in a du Maurier mood, I’ll be torn as to which of these to read because they’re both so good. But before I reread either of them I have the new collection The Doll: The Lost Short Stories from LibraryThing Early Reviewers to read in the next few months, not to mention the many other du Maurier novels and stories I haven’t picked up at all.

What’s your favorite du Maurier novel or story? Any others that I absolutely must read?

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27 Responses to My Cousin Rachel

  1. I watched Rebecca when I was young and loved it, but I just read Rebecca last year. I was blown away by how fantastic the film version is. So then I read a couple others…and then My Cousin Rachel. It definitely stood up to Rebecca for me, and I loved it. As you mention, I loved the mystery of Rachel. Fantastic book, and I need to read more from her.

  2. Like you, I count myself as a du Maurier fan having only read Rebecca because I am too scared to read anything else in case it changes how I feel about Rebecca (that its one of the best books ever!). I might give this a go though if I can work up the courage :-)

  3. Harriet says:

    I read this a year or two ago and like you I thought it was a brilliant novel. Strange that it is less well-known than Rebecca. Definitely Daphne at her best.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder if the ambiguity is part of the reason that it’s less popular than Rebecca. I loved that we don’t know Rachel’s motivation at the end, but I imagine it would bother a lot of people.

  4. litlove says:

    I remember this as a fantastic novel, too. All my du Maurier reading was done between the ages of 14 and 17, so I have only the haziest of memories as to which of her books is best. But I seem to recall that The Scapegoat was good and I loved Jamaica Inn (although the writing isn’t quite so hot in that one). Some of the historical novels like The Glassblowers and Mary Anne were also worth a read, I think. But really, this was all quite a while ago!

  5. ithinkisawsomething says:

    I love Daphne du Maurier and this is one of my favourites. I think Rebecca is the masterpiece but I also love her short stories and remember being genuinely disturbed by one which I think was called The Blue Lenses. It was really macabre. I think it’s a shame a lot of people think of her as some sort of romantic novelist when her work is much darker and more ambiguous than that.
    I think she had a real talent for atmosphere and she particularly seemed to love writing about isolation, unusual new situations that she put her characters in and which they never really understand, even at the end of her books.
    I think some of her stories weren’t quite up to the mark: for example Jamaica Inn I could never really understand what the fuss is about as I didn’t think it was very engaging, but that’s a subjective view. Frenchman’s Creek I couldn’t actually finish.
    My Cousin Rachel is a beauty though: difficult to pin down, wonderfully ambiguous and with one of the best last lines in literature.

    • Teresa says:

      I suppose her reputation as a romantic novelist is a side effect of Rebecca being her most well-known book, and it is so romantic (but also pretty dark and ambiguous when you think about it).

      And the last line is definitely a stunner. Sent my heart right down into my stomach.

  6. Deb says:

    I feel sure I’ve posted about this before (in fact, I know I have), but I strongly recommend Du Maurier’s THE PARASITES which is like absolutely nothing else she wrote. It’s the story of three step/siblings (their parents had a “yours, mine, and ours” situation) who grow up in the theater/music worlds of the early 20th century. One of the great achievements of the book is its very tricky narrative structure when it appears that all three of the siblings are narrating the story at various points. It evokes a wonderful sense of the artisitc world of continental Europe between the two world wars and gives a sense of the isolation in which the siblings grew up. Du Maurier was herself one of three siblings, the child of Gerald Du Maurier, the greatest stage actor of his day, and the cousin of J.M. Barrie’s “Lost Boys,” so she was intimately familiar with that world.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll definitely look into The Parasites. I read Justine Picardie’s Daphne a few years ago and was interested in du Maurier’s own background, so her own fictionalization of that world has a lot of potential.

  7. Frances says:

    I know I have said this too many times here and there, but this is one of my all time favorite examples of unreliable narration. I enjoy this book every bit as much as Rebecca. You have me thinking of reading a little Du Maurier again. Maybe even this one. Which I have already read more than a few times. :)

    • Teresa says:

      Philip’s extreme unreliability took me by surprise, but you’re right that it’s a very good example, and it’s unclear even (perhaps especially) at the end just how unreliable he is. I’m glad to hear that it held up to multiple readings for you.

  8. Jenny says:

    I loved this one! I liked Jamaica Inn quite well, and I am very fond of the short stories I’ve read by her (Don’t Look Now is a particular favorite) where she kind of lets herself go with the creepiness. So glad you read this one.

    • Teresa says:

      I loved the film of Don’t Look Now (it’s 70s horror, of course I loved it) so I definitely want to read the story. I found the story version of The Birds to be pretty chilling, more so than the film.

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, the film was stellar, and very close to the story. And I agree about The Birds — I think it’s the [spoiler!] lack of hope at the end that does it. She’s a terrific short story artist.

  9. Melissa says:

    Rebecca remains my absolute favorite, but this one was so good as well! You never quite know what Rachel is thinking. I’ve read Jamaica Inn and it wasn’t quite as good as the other two, but still a fun mystery.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s been years since I read Rebecca, so I’ll have to reread to decide which I really like best. The ambiguity in this one really appeals to me.

  10. rebeccareid says:

    I haven’t read anything other than Rebecca either — and that was MANY years ago. Sounds like I need to revisit Du Maurier…My mom gave me an old omnibus of her writing that she didn’t want any more, sounds like I need to open it up and see what delights are in store!

  11. Cori says:

    Great review — I really enjoyed Rebecca earlier this year (my first time reading it), so I bet I’d like this one. Plus, the main character and I share a last name. And that never happens. :)

  12. Karen K. says:

    I also read My Cousin Rachel this year and quite liked it. I don’t think anything will ever compare to Rebecca but this one really held my interest with its ambiguity. It was much better than Jamaica Inn which I found terribly disappointing.

    And I wanted to smack Philip upside the head several times. His naivete was the only thing I found unrealistic about this book — he’d had NO experience with women AT All? Not some village girl, not the sister of some college friend? Please.

  13. Blue Skies says:

    New to your blog and very much enjoying it! I found it while searching for “My Cousin Rachel”. Our book club (The Becoming Jane Austen Book Club) will be discussing “Rachel” this Saturday, Jan. 7. I lead the discussion and formulate the questions. Your discussion here on the book was so helpful–I did quite a bit and ‘cut and paste’. :)

    I’ve also read “Rebecca” and “The Birds”. One of the “Janes” lent me a book of Daphne’s short stories and I will try to have a go at a few of them before Saturday. Our Book Club meets every couple of months–we discuss the book first, then gather 1-2 weeks later for a pizza party and watch the film version of what we just read.

    Happy Reading!

  14. Pingback: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier | Iris on Books

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