This is one of those reviews that I probably ought to have written as soon as I finished the book, as the story gave me so many feels. But I’ll try my best to recapture my initial emotions.
Du Maurier is an author that I added to the TBR because I had read one of her books and loved it (Rebecca, of course) but somehow had never read another of her works. One the whole, while I didn’t love My Cousin Rachel like I did Rebecca (I’ve read Rebecca multiple times, but don’t really picture myself returning to My Cousin Rachel… well… maybe I will), it still did not disappoint.
The story begins much as Rebecca does – with the ending. Somehow, du Maurier manages to make her first chapter actually be the epilogue of the story, and instead of ruining the ending, it adds to the tension throughout. Just as in Rebecca we already know that the narrator will never return to Manderley – and thus spend the entire book wondering what has happened to make that so – My Cousin Rachel tells us in the very first chapter –
The point is, life has to be endured, and lived. But how to live it is the problem. The work of day by day presents no difficulties. I shall become Justice of Peace, as Ambrose was, and also be returned, one day, to Parliament. I shall continue to be honoured and respected, like all my family before me. Farm the land well, look after the people. No one will every guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still be doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?
And so, from the start, we know that we are not going to know whether or not Rachel is innocent or guilty (of what? We don’t even know that, yet). We know that our narrator, Philip, is alone. And we know that, for some reason, he carries a “burden of blame,” although we do not yet know whether or not it is deserved. Throughout the entire first chapter, du Maurier introduces us to a narrator who is still young, yet filled with confusion and angst about … something … something that has to do with his cousin Rachel.
Philip is an orphan, and has lived almost his entire life with his bachelor uncle, Ambrose. Ambrose was known for not really caring for women; not only was he unmarried, he didn’t even employ any women in his household. One of the primary landowners of the area, Ambrose was the Justice of Peace, and known for being quiet, just, kind, and intelligent. As Ambrose grew older, his health began to deteriorate. Philip tells us that Ambrose’s doctor recommended that he begin spending his winters in a warmer climate. And one of those winters, when Philip was around twenty, Ambrose decided to go to Italy for his winter rest.
And there, in Italy, he met a distant cousin, Rachel, a widow. He wrote to Philip and told him so.
“I have made the acquaintance of a connection of ours,” he wrote. “…my cousin Rachel is a sensible woman, good company, and has taken it upon her shoulders to show me the gardens in Florence, and in Rome later, as we shall both be there at the same time.”
Still, despite Ambrose’s warm words about Rachel, Philip is shocked when he receives a letter from Ambrose telling of Ambrose’s marriage to Rachel. And as the gaps between Ambrose’s letters get lengthier and lengthier, Philip is uneasy – a feeling that is confirmed by Ambrose’s last letters, which speak of Rachel not as a kind and loving wife, but as a gaoler, watching over him in his illness. Ambrose hints at an even darker possibility – that of poison. His last letter, a mere scrawl, sent Philip rushing to Italy – “For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late. Ambrose.”
Du Maurier does a brilliant job building this story. Everything I have given you so far is in the first three chapters, and they are written exquisitely. The tension is palpable, and we are given subtle looks at Philip’s character through his narration. Philip is rather jealous when Ambrose is married, and we know from the beginning that he is suspicious of Rachel, but his story seems straightforward enough. When Philip arrives in Italy, too late for Ambrose, who has died, he is told a different story (although not by Rachel, who has left town) – that Ambrose was suffering from a brain tumor. His father died that way as well, and Philip is told that all of Ambrose’s paranoia stems from this.
The rest of the book, we are left wondering which it is. Was Ambrose perfectly sane, and Rachel poisoned him for his money, and so she could marry her lover? Or was Ambrose delusional and ill, and Rachel loved and nursed him as best she could? Philip himself sways back and forth between the two possibilities.
Despite the fact that there wasn’t a great deal of action, I found this book entirely engrossing. Du Maurier has crafted a set of characters who are very real. The story feels off-kilter the entire time. You can never find your balance, because every time you reach a decision as to Rachel’s character, you’re given a new fact or incident that throws it all into a new light.
Throughout, Philip came across as incredibly young. I think that du Maurier capture that perfectly, that blend of arrogance and self-consciousness that one has when one is twenty. That constant swing between complete confidence that one has solved all the world’s problems and that the old are rather ridiculous and hidebound, and the uncertainty and worry about how other people are viewing and judging you and whether or not you’re doing everything the way one ought to. My early twenties are definitely the least favorite years I’ve lived yet, where you’re expected to be an adult and to make adult decisions, and yet you actually have no earthly idea what you’re doing. Philip’s voice embodies all of that, blusteringly confident on one page, and agonizingly indecisive on the next.
I personally had a mild beef with the ending, which I’ll put below the cut. Please only read it if you’ve read the book – because you should all read the book, and you should read it without knowing the ending. It’s fantastic writing, and has definitely cemented my need to read all of du Maurier’s works.
So I guess for me, by the end I really felt like Rachel was completely innocent. Maybe it is just my reading of it, but in order for Rachel’s death to be justified, I felt like her innocence or guilt should have been more ambiguous than it was. As it was, I was convinced that Rachel was innocent, and that Philip is basically a murderer, which is still an alright way to end the book, but not as satisfying as it could have been.