The Book Report is a reading series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. Tonight, May 8, join hosts Leigh Stein and Sasha Fletcher, with special guests Maris Kreizman, Amy Lawless, and J. Hope Stein, for an evening that will remind you of 3rd grade in the best possible way. 7pm, The Gallery at LPR.
Here: Julia Phillips reviews Rebecca.
Halfway through reading Rebecca, the sentence “this bitch is looney-tunes” popped into my head. I was on the subway, it was midnight, and my feet hurt from working a closing shift. I had just turned the two hundredth page. This bitch is looney-tunes. Fully formed, completely unbidden, a phrase I would probably never say out loud sounded in my head, and in delighted shock at its accuracy I had to look around at my fellow night-commuters. No one looked at me. No one else was reading Rebecca, with its murders, its shipwrecks, burning mansions, coerced suicides; no one else was reading Rebecca, which is looney-tunes from top to bottom.
Take for example the book’s narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter. In the middle of constant external drama, she commits the bulk of her energy to self-loathing; fully half the book is passed in Mrs. de Winter’s imaginary hate-dialogues. “Of course I was inexperienced, of course I was idiotic, shy and young. I knew all that. She did not have to tell me,” says Mrs. de Winter about everyone she sees. Or, “I looked plain, unattractive. I rubbed a little rouge on my cheeks in a wretched attempt to give myself color. But it made me worse.” Or, “people like myself…did not matter.” Oh, she’s a charmer, our narrator, she’s a pip. By the time you read up to adulterous pregnancies and secret cancer diagnoses, you love to loathe Mrs. de Winter almost as much as she does herself.
But how could she compare to Mrs. Danvers, the diabolical housekeeper of the de Winters’ estate? How could either one compare to Rebecca herself, the beautiful first wife so determined in her cruelty that both shooting and drowning weren’t enough to keep her away from the manor? And how could any of these characters, really, compare to the personality that created them—amazingly excessive as they are, how could they be any more than shadows from author Daphne du Maurier’s extraordinary mind?
“This bitch is looney-tunes,” I thought, not knowing who I meant—the girl, the servant, the ghost, the author. All of it. Myself.
When I was in college, I wrote a story that I hoped would become a book. I redrafted it eight times. I made a manuscript. I sent it out to agents, who sent it back. The novel I pitched starred an insecure girl and two characters named Max and Becca, and I spent years on it before I ever picked up du Maurier’s work and learned about Maxim and Rebecca de Winter.
Here was my story: a girl loves an older man, but she doesn’t know how to keep his loyalty. She feels ugly. He leaves. Made bold by this betrayal, she plans a better life, flees the country, and severs all her ties. Here’s Rebecca: a girl loves an older man, but she fears he’s still loyal to his first wife. She feels ugly. He’s distant. Finally, he confesses to her that the first wife was monstrous, that he killed her, that he’s guilty. Made bold by this intimate confession, our heroine goes with him to leave in foreign exile and they sever all their ties.
There’s a lot of plot in common. Let’s clarify one difference, though: in five years of working on my book, I never achieved with my manuscript the heights of frenzy and passion that Rebecca provokes in a single half-hour subway ride. These books are two identical oysters, except only one has a pearl.
In college, I kept a file of inspirations (this song, that album, a certain incredible opening paragraph) and believed my story would be the synthesis of those gorgeous things. My book would be all that and more. But after a hundred thousand retyped words, I’ve lost sight of what would have been. I listen to or read what once propelled me through new pages—and now it doesn’t go. The Max and Becca I knew, characters I created, clothed, and fed, are far away. I don’t know how to recover them. After reading Rebecca, I don’t know if I want to.
Though I lived with my Becca and Max always in mind, Rebecca and Maxim de Winter feel more real than my characters did. All along, others’ work inspired mine, but this book swallowed in subway rides exposed mine. The novel I wanted to write is derivative of this one. When I started my work, I’d never read du Maurier, but now I know that what I want to do is only what she’s already done.
Of all the thrilling scenes in this book—and there are a heap—there’s one in particular I loved. It takes place long before any bloody revelations or brushes with the death sentence, when our narrator is first proposed marriage by Maxim. She’s so giddy! She’s adorable. “Mrs. de Winter,” she says. “I would be Mrs. de Winter. I considered my name, and the signatures on cheques, to tradesmen, and in letters…I would be Mrs. de Winter. I saw the polished table in the dining-room, and the long candles. Maxim sitting at the end. A party of twenty-four. I had a flower in my hair. Everyone looked towards me, holding up his glass. ‘We must drink the health of the bride,’ and Maxim saying afterwards, ‘I have never seen you look so lovely.’ Great cool rooms, filled with flowers. My bedroom, with a fire in the winter, someone knocking at the door. And a woman comes in, smiling, she is Maxim’s sister, and she is saying, ‘It’s really wonderful how happy you have made him, everyone is so pleased, you are such a success.’ Mrs. de Winter. I would be Mrs. de Winter.”
As I neared the novel’s end, I kept turning back to this page and re-reading. I flipped back and forth in the book, stared out the black train windows, and thought, this bitch is looney-tunes. This child. This sweet, silly, stupid girl. She has no idea of how little what she pictures will come to be.