This image of Grace Adler (Debra Messing) – and sometimes Bobbi Adler (Debbie Reynolds) – kept popping up as I sped my way through Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.
Probably not something one sees in the same sentence often.
Argh there were so many moments when I just wanted to shake him up, wake him up to the realities so blindingly obvious to everyone, especially the reader. And then you know, do the ‘told you’ song and dance.
But of course he knew it all. In hindsight that is. He tells the reader so in the first chapter.
I suppose I should start at the beginning.
“We were dreamers, both of us, unpractical, reserved, full of great theories never put to test, and, like all dreamers, asleep to the waking world. Disliking our fellow men, we craved affection; but shyness kept impulse dormant until the heart was touched. When that happened the heavens opened, and we felt, the pair of us, that we had the whole wealth of the universe to give.”
Philip Ashley, orphaned at a young age, has been brought up by his older cousin Ambrose. The two of them are so close, that Philip has become like him:
“Well, it was what I always wanted. To be like him. To have his height, his shoulders, his way of stooping, even his long arms, his rather clumsy-looking hands, his sudden smile, his shyness at first meeting with a stranger, his dislike of fuss, of ceremony.”
Philip is heir to the estate as Ambrose is single and childless. And Du Maurier is careful to set up the household as a rather masculine one, devoid of feminine charms.
So it is to everyone’s surprise that Ambrose, on a tour of Italy, meets Cousin Rachel, a distant relative born and brought up in Italy and now a widow with “a load of debts and a great empty villa”. But as she is a “sensible woman and good company”, Ambrose writes that they are spending plenty of time together. And some months later tells Philip that they are married.
Philip is rather horrified at the thought, feeling more alone than ever before. And pretty much resolves to detest Cousin Rachel: “One moment middle-aged and forceful, the next simpering and younger than Louise, my cousin Rachel had a dozen personalities or more, and each one more hateful than the last.”
But the tone of Ambrose’s letters change. They become strained and suspicious. And worried Philip heads to Italy to find the truth. And there he learns that his dearest Ambrose is dead, of a brain tumor, according to Rachel’s doctors.
He returns home, now master of the estate. And learns that Cousin Rachel is headed to his very shores. He is still determined to hate her, and continues to build up this villain, this ogre in his mind. But they meet and he does not know what to make of this diminutive, charming woman who threads her way into his life, his household.
I would like to say more but I think the rest of it is perhaps best discovered on your own, as I had a wonderful time doing so myself. I pretty much spent wee reader’s nap time racing my way through the second half of this book. This book just kept me wondering, what next? And there was also plenty of: ‘nooooooo! Don’t do that!’ and ‘Are you crazy?’
So it was frustrating.
Not that it was a difficult read, but because I felt so invested in the story, in the characters (perhaps I felt for this motherless youth, for his naivety?), that I just was so exasperated by what seemed like all the wrong decisions.
And du Maurier leaves us at the end, still wondering. Was Cousin Rachel really that diabolical? Or were they all just victims of rather unfortunate circumstances?
I can’t help but compare My Cousin Rachel to Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Both having similar situations – ownership of a manor, tangled relationships, webs of deceit. For me, My Cousin Rachel was a better read, perhaps because I did not despise the narrator (Philip) as much as The Little Stranger‘s Dr Faraday. And in both books, the reader is left hanging. There are conclusions of a sort, but plenty of questions left unanswered. But in the case of My Cousin Rachel, I found myself turning back to the front of the book and starting the first chapter over. And then finding all these hints and clues that Du Maurier had dropped along the way. I think I would have reread this all over again, except for the fact that it was due back at the library… perhaps this just means I need my own copy?
This is my third read for RIP VII