Title: My Cousin Rachel
Author: Dame Daphne du Maurier
No. of Pages: 383
Genre: Classics; Suspense
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Release Date: 1 July 1951
Bottom Line: Atmospheric and suspenseful but to be avoided by those not comfortable with ambiguity
“Philip Ashley’s older cousin Ambrose, who raised the orphaned Philip as his own son, has died in Rome. Philip, the heir to Ambrose’s beautiful English estate, is crushed that the man he loved died far from home. He is also suspicious. While in Italy, Ambrose fell in love with Rachel, a beautiful English and Italian woman. But the final, brief letters Ambrose wrote hint that his love had turned to paranoia and fear.
Now Rachel has arrived at Philip’s newly inherited estate. Could this exquisite woman, who seems to genuinely share Philip’s grief at Ambrose’s death, really be as cruel as Philip imagined? Or is she the kind, passionate woman with whom Ambrose fell in love? Philip struggles to answer this question, knowing Ambrose’s estate, and his own future, will be destroyed if his answer is wrong.”
Thoughts: In many ways, Philip is very much a child even though he is almost 25 years old. His prior exposure to women is laughable, setting the stage for the drama that later occurs. Compounding this is his attitude towards convention and town gossip; in this aspect, he is very much a petulant child who thinks he knows better than his elders and refuses to listen to their words of wisdom. He is going to blaze his own path in this world no matter what anyone says. Because of his inexperience and eagerness to learn from the school of hard knocks, a reader feels for Philip as a parent – frustrated and impatient but impotent in the ability to make any difference. Readers know with no doubts that things are going to end poorly, but all one can do is sit back and watch it happen. It is exactly like having a teenager in the house.
Then again, in spite of all his petulance, Philip shows remarkable foresight towards the end. He adopts his plans carefully and thoughtfully, making sure to consider all of his options. Though his actions may not be the wisest of choices, horrifying his relatives, neighbors, and readers alike, he does so with eyes wide open. His naïve belief in his own happily ever after is endearingly sweet and yet another example of his frustrating nature. The duality of his character only serves to improve the story, as it makes him an unreliable narrator from whom a reader must discern what the truth is and what has been colored through rose-tinted glasses.
Dame Du Maurier knows suspense. In My Cousin Rachel, she uses her skill to subtly ratchet up the tension. Readers will not even know they are waiting with bated breath as the story winds to its chilling close. She also excels at allowing readers to use their imaginations. There is an ambiguity throughout the novel that may frustrate readers looking for easy answers. However, she does provide enough breadcrumbs for readers to follow to create their own answers. Rachel remains shrouded in mystery, and how a reader feels about her actions and behavior depends on one’s personal experiences and mood at the time of reading. Reading the novel over the course of several days will cause a reader’s sympathies to change multiple times. It makes for an intriguing novel and one that is a literal example of the adage that no two people read the same book.
My Cousin Rachel is no Rebecca, the ultimate novel in mood, tension, and unexpected outcomes. While comparing the two novels is unfair because they are so different, one cannot help but do so. Rebecca showcases Dame Du Maurier’s talents beautifully and is an outstanding story. My Cousin Rachel is interesting and still well-written; however, it is missing that specialness which sets Rebecca apart from all of her other novels. There is something unpolished about the story, the ending is a bit too rushed as well as unformed, and the characters lack definition. One wants to like My Cousin Rachel more because it came from Dame Du Maurier, but ultimately it pales in comparison to its predecessor.