On June 5, our First Monday Classic at the Orange County Public Library is Rebecca by Daphne De Maurier. Its credentials as a classic are pretty impressive. Published in 1938, the book has never been out of print, and remains popular with tens of millions of readers.
I don’t love every book we read for First Monday Classics. Some I respect, and understand why they deserve to be counted as a classic, but the passage of time and changing cultural values have made a once great book less enjoyable. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic, but the barely comprehensible dialect, the stereotypes it relies on for humor, and Twain’s inability to edit himself when it comes to shoe-horning Tom Sawyer into the book has turned the book into something of a slog for modern readers.
I don’t think anyone would describe Rebecca as a slog. De Maurier knows how to set up a hook, ending each chapter with just the right bit of information that will make you want to read a little further. Her writing style is sensual, full of colors, scents, and textures, vivid details that make her settings come alive. The book engages you on a physical level. At the same time, we are also taken into the imagination of the unnamed narrator. Many chapters are filled not with things that are happening, but with the narrator imagining things that will happen, both her hopes and her worries. While this robs the book of some immediacy, I appreciated the reflection that people really do spend so much time worrying about things that haven’t happened. Her daydreaming makes the character seem real.
That said, wow, I hated this book. This is the point of this essay I should probably label “Spoilers Ahead,” but, seriously, we’re talking about a book almost 80 years old. A book that endures that long doesn’t have to rely on hidden plot twists to stay relevant. My objections to the book are many.
First, the characters are thin to the point of parody. As the male protagonist, Maxim has zero traits that identify him other than the fact he’s rich, handsome, and brooding. The narrator marries him apparently without asking one single question about his past. We’re told he’s smart and kind, but I have difficulty pinning down a single moment where these traits are on display. The narrator, his new wife, is such a blank slate she’s not even given a name. We’re in her head constantly but we’re never shown any reason at all that Maxim might have fallen in love with her. She’s so young and naïve that his attraction for her seems to be that she’s young and naïve, which is creepy on his part and foolish on her part.
Second, the morality of this book is loathsome. The big plot twist is that Maxim killed his first wife, Rebecca, then sank her boat with her body inside in the bay. When the boat is eventually found, the narrator’s reaction to learning her husband is a murderer isn’t to fear for her own safety or to think about how to report him to the police, but to instantly and whole-heartedly conspire to make sure he goes unpunished for the crime. His motives for the murder? Rebecca was cheating on him, told him she was pregnant with another man’s child, and reminded him of how much gossip he’d have to endure if they divorced. Seriously, his choices were an ugly divorce or to murder a pregnant woman, and for some reason we’re asked to empathize that he went with murder.
Third, the utter passivity of these characters is frustrating. Maxim doesn’t get away with murder because he’s clever. He escapes mostly by luck. He shoots Rebecca, but luckily the bullet misses any bones, so when her body is discovered there’s no evidence of a bullet wound. There is a witness to him dragging Rebecca’s body onto the boat, but luckily it’s a deranged old man who is unable to explain what he saw. There’s a man with proof that Rebecca didn’t commit suicide, but luckily he’s intent on blackmail, which means he doesn’t use his information at the inquest where it actually could have mattered. At the end, it’s discovered well after the fact that Rebecca had cancer and likely manipulated Maxim into murdering her as a form of suicide, which seems to remove the last trace of his moral culpability. He didn’t really kill her by shooting her and hiding the body. It was suicide after all! The terrible moral logic is cringe inducing.
Finally, the most disturbing truth of all: Maxim gets away with the murder mostly because he’s rich and powerful. Law enforcement is deferential to him at every step. He escapes suspicion of murder as the evidence accumulates primarily because his high status makes him immune from any important person really thinking him capable of the murder. And if Maxim escapes justice by doing absolutely nothing, the book’s unnamed narrator does even less. Maybe it’s slipping my memory, but I don’t think the police even question her.
As I head to book club next week, I’m actually pretty excited by the possibility that other people will have loved this book. A lot of the best discussions come from books that illicit mixed reactions. Also, I’m always eager to hear from champions of a book that I’ve disliked, wanting to get their take on why so many readers might love a book I regard as deeply flawed. If you’ve read this book and have an opinion pro or con, feel free to join us next Monday at 6:30. It should be a fun discussion.