My rating: 3.5/10.
This is a book for fans of du Maurier’s now classic, noire-romantic-suspense novel Rebecca; I suspect anyone else would be completely bemused. Would this be what is termed as “fan fiction”?
Mrs. de Winter started off reasonably promisingly, but quickly got tedious. Susan Hill was very conscientious about channeling du Maurier’s voice as preserved in Rebecca, but in my opinion the greatest weakness of the book is that she stuck to that voice too strongly, instead of taking the characters to the next level.
I give Hill credit for trying, hence the (generous) 3.5 rating, and it is obvious that she holds Rebecca in great esteem, but I found this sequel ultimately boring and very depressing – wait! – no! – not merely depressing – downright sad is a better description. It was also about two hundred pages too long for the content, and very wordy and repetitive. The plot was contrived and unbelievable, and the ending, quite frankly, was deeply disappointing.
Rebecca ended on a tragic note, too, but it was a fitting conclusion to what had come before, and is likely one of the reasons why the story is so highly regarded. I tend to agree with those who say that Rebecca is du Maurier’s masterpiece. It is very much a polished and completed piece of work, and decidedly a stand-alone book, and a sequel written by another author should then at least be creative and take us in a new direction – “What if?” This just didn’t happen here. And that’s really too bad, because from what I’ve heard, Susan Hill can write.
Mrs. de Winter continues the story that du Maurier so teasingly but perfectly tied up in 1938 in Rebecca. Fifty-five years later that book is still so widely read and admired that a sequel by a contemporary author comes in for much discussion and is greeted with high hopes. Interesting and cleverly imagined sequels are occasionally created on the coattails of classic novels, but they are rare creatures. Sadly this particular attempt was, in my opinion, quite decidedly a “miss”.
In Susan Hill’s take, Maxim and the first person narrator, his second wife so famously left unnamed in Rebecca, have not seemed to grow or emotionally develop in the ten years subsequent to the burning of Manderley. If anything, they have degenerated.
At the close of Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter has found a new maturity and confidence and faces her future with fortitude and a certain stubborn grace. Maxim himself has become a much more likeable character as he unbends enough to confess his failings to his new wife; their marriage looks like it may actually work, having weathered the storm of the murdered first wife and the malicious Mrs. Danvers and her revengeful arson.
In Mrs. de Winter, Maxim comes across as a boring, immature, moody manic-depressive, and his wife as just plain pathetic: still dowdy and unsure of herself, and acting much younger than her age. No wonder Maxim walks all over her, in this re-interpretation, even more so than in the original – she’s a true “Kick-Me-Charlie”.
Spoiler alert, for both Rebecca and Mrs. de Winter. If you want to be surprised, stop reading now.
Mrs. de Winter starts with a funeral in England. We don’t immediately know who has died; we find out on page 20, after much long-winded scene-setting and flashbacks, that it is Maxim’s sister, Beatrice.
It is now ten years after the burning of Maxim’s family estate, Manderley. As those of you who have read Rebecca will remember, Maxim has been emotionally scarred apparently beyond recovery by the whole saga of first having murdered his lovely but secretly treacherous first wife, Rebecca, and then narrowly escaping justice. Rebecca’s death has been officially recorded as a suicide, and Rebecca’s devoted ex-nanny, Mrs. Danvers, has set fire to Maxim’s beloved house in revenge – she knows the truth. Maxim has confessed all to his young second wife, and she in turn has forgiven him everything in her relief at finding out that Maxim is not still in love with his first wife, as she has been mistakenly thinking all along. (Interesting that Maxim can quite calmly deal with being a murderer, but the loss of his palatial estate sends him over the final edge. Not the most admirable of characters, when one steps back for some perspective, to put a house ahead of a human life, but in the original he shows enough character to allow us to conditionally forgive his numerous sins.)
The two have gone to live in Europe, to escape all the apparent gossip that is being generated by the complicated tragedy. Though Maxim is widely viewed as a bereaved husband and not a murderer, he is such a sensitive type that even a whisper about Manderley or Rebecca apparently gives him the jim-jams. His second wife meekly caters to his neuroses.
As the sequel begins, the second World War has just ended. Maxim and second Mrs. de Winter have apparently spent the war years safely ensconced in Switzerland. Maxim has no intention of going back to England, even for his sister’s funeral, but Mrs. de Winter convinces him that he must. It seems that she is dreadfully homesick and welcomes the chance to return to her homeland, even if the reason is the pathetically tragic death of a beloved wife and mother.
They get there, see Beatrice buried, and are reluctant spectators to her widower Giles’ deep distress. There is a terribly disfigured war hero son about as well. For a while I thought that was going somewhere, but it was a dead-end – he is merely part of the background colour. A mysterious funeral wreath appears, seen by Mrs. de Winter alone – the card is signed with dead(!) Rebecca’s signature initial. Oh my! What could this mean?! The note is hidden, but naturally not destroyed – and we know that it’s going to cause trouble later. (Cue foreboding music.)
Maxim is ready to head back to Europe, but Mrs. de Winter begs to stay in England for a while. He half-heartedly agrees, but pouts enough so that his wife starts viewing him with a certain distaste. After all, she has been a willing silent partner in his great deception, and has put up with his moody behaviour these past ten years. All she really wants to do is find a quiet corner in England, settle down and have a few babies.
Many pages pass. Eventually Maxim surprises his wife with the news that he has bought her a small country house. La la la – life is looking up! Mrs. de Winter sneaks away to London to inquire of a gynecologist why she’s not getting pregnant, which is kind of a strange little side story because I thought the implication in the original story was that Maxim chose to remain childless, so I’d assumed they were actively practising some sort of birth control. There were condoms in the 1940s, were there not? Well, according to Ms. Hill, Mr. and Mrs. de Winter were unable to have children due to bad luck, not from human preventative measures. The doctor tells the Mrs. that she’ll get pregnant once she learns to relax and be happy, and she is so thrilled by this she prances straight off home intending to break the good news.
But wait! Suddenly there appears on the scene the wicked Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, who immediately announces his intention to blackmail Mrs. de W. With what I’m not quite sure. (My attention was wandering a fair bit at this point.) So much for less stress! Darn, no baby for you, Mrs. Maxim. (Yes, I’m being very facetious. I was strongly annoyed at the author by this point, and no longer enjoying the book in any way, shape or form.)
More pages about this and that. Shades of the Manderley costume ball in the original book – there is a party. Jack Favell shows up but is shot down. (Figuratively, not literally. Luckily for Jack, Maxim doesn’t have a firearm handy, as he did when Rebecca annoyed him severely in her turn.) Mrs. Danvers also shows up, but is coldly dismissed by Maxim. After the party, Maxim is all sad and angsty. “It is justice!” he moans, and proceeds to exit the scene and drive fatally into a tree.
The ashes are scattered, predictably, into the ocean off the coast of Manderley.
The book is gently put down, contrary to inner impulse. It is, after all, a library book, and we must return it in good condition.
Ick. Ick. Ick. Ick. Ick.
Why did I think this would be a desirable read?