I have an odd reading quirk–am I the only one who does this? Sometimes books have been sitting on my shelf for so long, waiting to be read, that I almost can’t pick them up and read them even though I really want to. So instead I approach them obliquely by reading something else by the same author. I put off reading Middlesex for a decade and read The Marriage Plot instead. I’ve been insisting that I need to reread Flaubert’s Parrot, but I went out and bought The Sense of an Ending and read that. And now, aware that there has been a Daphne du Maurier challenge or readathon going on among other bloggers, my desire to reread Rebecca has been rekindled. It has been on my shelf for at least 15 years and I really do intend to read it again. I can’t remember a single thing about it. But rather than take that book from my shelf, I borrowed My Cousin Rachel from the library.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier is a delicious old-fashioned page-turner. The story is told by Philip Ashley, a twenty-four-year old naive gentryman, orphaned as a baby and brought up by his generous bachelor cousin Ambrose.
Rachel is a distant cousin who married an Italian viscount and was widowed under scandalous circumstances. However, she is living quietly now and she takes Ambrose under her wing in Florence. She shares his passion for gardening. To Philip’s shock and dismay, Ambrose shortly informs him that they are wed.
Before Philip can adjust to this news (it takes awhile–Philip has to sort through all the ramifications of his own jealousy including the fact that he might eventually lose his position as Ambrose’s heir) he receives disturbing letters from Ambrose. All is not well. Ambrose fears and mistrusts Rachel. And he is ill. Philip hurries to Florence but arrives too late. Ambrose is dead. And Rachel has disappeared.
Philip returns home, certain that Ambrose has been murdered. He is therefore shocked when Rachel appears a few weeks later at his home. She is nothing like he expected. She is altogether charming. And Philip falls under her spell. Just like Ambrose.
It’s a fascinating study of a young man blinded by his own passion. Philip is a wildly unreliable narrator because he sees what he wants to see and convinces himself of what he needs to believe. The ending is wonderfully ambiguous because Philip’s arguments are never quite convincing and the facts of the matter could support either conclusion. Read it and see. What do you think? Was Rachel innocent or guilty?