Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Cousin, Rachel [Review]

Title: My Cousin, Rachel

Author: Daphne du Maurier (official du Maurier web site)

Copyright: 1951; I read a recent reprint edition, ISBN 1579125697, from Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers. (Curiously, there is no city provided on the title page in connection with this publisher. It was no great difficulty to find out that they are part of Workman Press which is headquartered in New York, but I did find it rather odd that they'd skipped a standard part of the title page publishing protocols.)

Length: 325 pages

Genre: Suspense; female gothic

Summary: Twenty-four year-old-Philip Ashley is alone. The much beloved cousin who raised him from infancy, Ambrose, has gone to Italy to relieve the pain of his rheumatism. After three years of journeying back and forth, there is a year when Ambrose writes that he has decided to stay in Florence. He has met a young widow, distantly related, to whom he refers as "My cousin, Rachel". Within three months they are married. Subsequently, Philip receives odd letters from Ambrose that seem to indicate his health is failing and that Ambrose fears for his life, perhaps due to poison at the hands of his young wife. Philip travels to Florence, only to learn upon his arrival that Ambrose is dead and that the widow has disappeared with all of Ambrose's personal belongings. Philip, grief-stricken and blaming this stranger, Rachel, returns to Cornwall to take his place as Ambrose's heir. He is young and uncertain, but seems to rise to the challenge.

What then happens when Mrs. Ambrose Ashley (Rachel) arrives in Cornwall not long after Philip's return? Can Philip see the real woman in the midst of his grief? Is Rachel a scheming female or merely independent? Did she poison Ambrose or did Ambrose die a madman from other causes? Does Philip wrong Rachel by his suspicion? Told entirely from the viewpoint of Philip, this novel leaves many questions open for the reader to ponder.

The writing is masterful, the narrative compelling, and the characters fully fleshed out. The reader has plenty of material to analyze for the purposes of coming to a conclusion. Did Rachel kill Ambrose in the hopes of gaining his fortune? Did she manipulate Philip? Or did Philip, inexperienced and impetuous, drive an innocent Rachel to a grim and unforgiving end? I imagine that there are women out there who have not yet read this tale, but if you've missed it, you will want to rectify that omission. It's a gripping read.

Also relevant: The first time one reads My Cousin, Rachel, the reader is so fixated on the determination of guilt with regard to Rachel, there is scant attention paid to the character of Philip. The second time one reads My Cousin, Rachel, there is more opportunity to consider duMaurier's position on Philip's general youth and inexperience with relationships, the gender gap inherent to the culture in 19th century Cornwall, and the craft with which duMaurier creates a mood of ambiguity while bringing her tale to a satisfactory close. I read somewhere that duMaurier herself never reached a conclusion as to Rachel's guilt, but now cannot locate the reference.

It is too easy to categorize duMaurier's novels as "female gothic" or "historical romances". Her main strength as an author is the creation of characters who are so engaging that one neglects to question their reliability as a narrator (as in My Cousin, Rachel) or note that you never hear their Christian name (as in Rebecca). I never once doubted the voice of Philip Ashley; he and his reactions to events seemed as realistic and as likely as those of my own son, seated on the couch with his laptop.

The movie version of this novel (1952, Twentieth-Century Fox) starred Richard Burton and Olivia de Haviland. I found de Haviland's rendition of Rachel to be entirely in keeping with the character of the novel while Burton as Philip chewed the scenery left and right. Still it was what prompted me to first buy and read this novel last summer, and subsequently select it for this month's book talk with the township library group. They were most enthusiastic about this title as a discussion, so I look forward to hearing their opinions and theories later in the week.

Update: Corrected copyright date to 1951 and corrected actress' name to deHaviland from Hussey as originally written.

** Potential Spoiler**Stop Now**Potential Spoiler**Stop Now

For what it is worth as a final conclusion, I don't think she murdered him, but I do think he murdered her. There! All clear now?