Rebecca (1938)

by Daphne du Maurier

The first-person narrator of Rebecca was never given a first name, as if to make the point about her situation: She feels so much less — less capable, less beautiful, less confident, less authoritative, less significant —  than the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter, the book's title character.

A 21-year-old orphan, the narrator is making her living as paid companion to a rich American traveling in Monte Carlo when she meets Maxim de Winter, owner of the renowned Manderley estate in England. He is reputed to be grieving the drowning death of his wife, Rebecca. When her employer is sidelined in bed for a few weeks, the narrator is taken out by Maxim. He is twice her age, and she thinks he's just being nice to her. But then he proposes marriage, and even though she barely knows him, she accepts, becoming mistress of Manderley. There she faces a creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who worshipped Rebecca and never fails to compare the unworldly new wife with the sophisticated old one. Others — house guests, acquaintances, servants — also are struck by the contrast; as Maxim's sister notes, "You are so very different from Rebecca." With Maxim strangely uncommunicative, a big part of the book transpires before the narrator realizes she needn't fear the comparison. Once she finally learns the truth about Rebecca, the plot moves fast, with surprising twists.

Heavy on atmosphere and suspense, Rebecca is an outstanding psychological mystery but not a typical one. How Rebecca actually died goes undetected, and du Maurier leaves readers sympathizing with a murderer. With their lives profoundly changed, the de Winters can only dream about a Manderley to which they will never return.



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