While du Marurier’s Rebecca is the wittiest (and has the best film adaption), and Jamaica Inn is the most brutal (and my favorite fiction work of 2019!), My Cousin Rachel had me in knots that caused me to put the novel down because the emotion was so powerful.
Philip Ashley was orphaned at age eighteen months, so his bachelor cousin Ambrose Ashley, at the age twenty-five, adopted Philip as his own son. The two led a wonderful, masculine life with none of the fuss of women who would tell them to redecorate the rooms and get their boots off the table. But when he gets into his forties, Ambrose recognizes that he suffers from the cold, wet weather of Cornwall, England, and heads to Florence, Italy, for the winter. While there, Ambrose meets a distance cousin named Rachel, a thirty-five year-old widow, and soon a letter arrives for Philip stating the couple has been married.
Although this turn from bachelorhood to married man in his forties delights everyone on Ambrose’s estate, Philip is more concerned with the way Ambrose’s handwriting grows ragged in the letters that come sporadically those eighteen months he is away. Ambrose’s last claim, that Rachel is his tormentor, sends Philip to Italy to save his adopted father. It’s too late: Ambrose is dead and Rachel is gone away with all of Ambrose’s things.
Emily @ Literary Elephant and I read My Cousin Rachel at the same time so we could discuss it together, and as soon as we were both done, the text messages flew hard and fast. I love the way we read certain aspects differently. I’m the kind of reader who allows herself to get pulled into a narrator’s story, to the point where I forget my physical body and surroundings. Thus, as I explained to Emily, reading Lolita was a strange experience because I recognized how Humbert Humbert was building an argument to put the reader on his side and justify his abduction of a teen-age girl — and because he was in the driver’s seat, I went along with his argument. The same happened with Philip: since he’s the first-person narrator, it’s easy to get lost in his feelings and concerns. Du Maurier’s use of first-person is wonderfully used to build tension and confusion.
When Philip first learns of Rachel and Ambrose’s marriage, Philip pictures some woman at the estate, telling him what to do. And what if they have children? That will mess up Philip’s sole inheritance of Ambrose’s 500-acre estate. A sulky, petulant young man, Philip convinced me of his feelings, until I could completely see his concerns and stand on his side. It was a familiar jealousy, though our experiences are different.
Later, when Rachel arrives at the estate to personally deliver Ambrose’s things — of course they are Philip’s now, of course she never had any intention of keeping them — as a reader I was won over by her “not one of those girls” personality because Philip was. Rachel doesn’t want to change Philip or his bachelor ways, and in turn he finds her intriguing, not like the ladies who bat their eyelashes at him, leading to a deep passion and emotional dependence on Rachel.
There are two elements that made me feel like someone was tightening a violin string too hard, and it was what made me put the book down to breathe. I mean this in the best way, as I got overly-involved in the characters’ lives. One, in what way did Rachel torment Ambrose? His death was preceded by an illness that was similar to the brain tumor that caused his father’s death. Violence, confusion, paranoia, these are all hallmarks of the brain tumor, we’re told. But did Ambrose also have a tumor, or was Rachel slowly poisoning him for his money? Then again, he Ambrose never wrote Rachel into his will. There is loads of convincing, logical evidence both ways! This is where I couldn’t read fast enough.
Then there is Philip’s godfather, who controls the will and money of the estate until Philip reaches twenty-five. Ambrose had a belief that a man doesn’t know himself until he is twenty-five, but when Rachel shows up, Philip is only twenty-four. Everything must go through the godfather, who at first asks petulant, suspicious Philip to be sympathetic to Rachel. As Philip gets to know her, he decides that Ambrose never updating his will was an oversight, and that Rachel should be given a quarterly allowance as the widow.
The godfather later cautions Philip that Rachel is overspending on what they agreed upon and has growing concerns about this cousin. Philip begins to act with heart alone, despite warnings from his godfather and friend Louise, and here is where I had to set the book down. I was positive this idiot would give everything to Rachel and then suffer being slowly poisoned and death. But I had to know what happened! So I read, and read, and read, more engrossed than I have been in another other novel since. . . well, since Jamaica Inn.
I’m 100% convinced that du Maurier is a master of writing, unique in her ability to ratchet up genuine tension, keep the plot totally plausible, craft a variety of characters for which I care even if the person is possibly a villain, and still maintains her wit as sharp as a cobra fang. Completely recommended. What are you waiting for? Go get a copy!
I want to thank Emily for reading along with me! Interested in reading a novel at the same time so we can talk about it, spoilers and all, away from our blogs? Let me know in the comments.