Daphne du Maurier appears to be the queen of setting the mood for a book in just a few pages. And then she draws you in and won’t let go until the very end. At least, these are my conclusions after reading her Rebecca last year and finishing My Cousin Rachel a few days ago.
In My Cousin Rachel narrator Philip grows up under the care of his bachelor cousin Ambrose in a household solely run by men. During his customary travels through Italy undertaken under instruction of his doctor to avoid the English cold, Ambrose meets a woman called Rachel and ends up marrying her. Instead of returning home during spring as Ambrose usually does, he stays on in Italy in his wife’s villa. When Ambrose writes a letter to Philip that seems to suggest he distrusts his wife and is feeling ill, Philip follows his cousin to Italy. Once in Italy, Philip is met with the news of his cousin’s death. He returns to England the heir of his cousin’s estate. Soon, he is visited by his cousin’s wife, Rachel. But can she be trusted?
My Cousin Rachel is an unsettling story about the background to Ambrose’s death, Philip’s obsession with his cousin Rachel, and Rachel’s person and motives. It is incredibly engaging, beautifully written, and has a psychological mysterious ring to it that I think fits RIP season perfectly. Towards the end, some elements became a little predictable, but as this is not a story that needs to be read for the mystery itself, but more for how the characters respond to it and the way Du Maurier develops those scenes – I am not complaining.
Moreover, as Sally Beauman suggests in her introduction, there is a really interesting underlying theme of gender to this book. In the relationship between Philip and Rachel, mirrored by scenes between Ambrose and Rachel, we see different modes of power between the characters. Constantly, Philip aims to (re)establish his male dominance, and his appropriation of Rachel seems to know no bounds. At the same time, Rachel, by negotiating and breaking free from her traditional gender constraints at times, is able to gain other forms of power and becomes unsettling to her environment (and at times the reader, who comes to know Rachel through Philip’s narration after all, making the reader almost complicit to the social norms by exploring that theme). As a reader, I never quite knew where my allegiance lay and I might change thought three times within a few sentences, but that is exactly what makes this story so intriguing. Both Rachel and Philip can be read as victims, while both of them might also be conceived of as perpetrators.
My Cousin Rachel counts towards as much as three challenges for me. I read it as my pick for the Classics Club Spin, but it was also on the list for RIPVIII and is my 1951 entry for A Century of Books.
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