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?