I had been wanting to read another novel from the incomparable Daphne du Maurier for quite some time. It had been years since I read Rebecca, arguably her most famous work. While I had also enjoyed several of her short stories, I really wanted to get back to one of her novels. Fortunately, I can say that My Cousin Rachel lives up to its reputation as a successor to Rebecca. In many ways, I think it succeeds it.
Philip Ashley has been raised by his cousin Ambrose since becoming orphaned at a young age. Growing up as heir to an estate in Cornwall, Philip learns of the benefits of the bachelor lifestyle from the man he considers a father. For health reasons, Ambrose has to travel abroad during the colder months. During one of these seasons away, the now grown Philip receives a letter from Ambrose reporting that he is now a married man to their distant cousin. Rachel, a widow in her 30’s with a love of gardening, has appeared to mesmerize Ambrose. Philip becomes concerned when additional letters from Ambrose report to his failing health as well as alluding to the fact that Rachel may not necessarily be trusted. Philip travels to Italy, only too late as dear Ambrose has passed away from a deadly fever and Cousin Rachel long gone. The grieving Philip returns home to his estate not knowing the guest that will soon arrive.
While initially possessing nothing but hate for the widow, it does not take long (not many pages anyway) for Philip to fall in love with Rachel. While going through Ambrose’s possessions, Philip discovers fragments of unsent letters once again alluding that the illness that killed him may have been Rachel’s fault. Also, Ambrose never signed his will which basically left Rachel penniless. Philip finds himself torn as he continues to fall deeper in love with her.
“Something was happening to the eyes that looked at me. The face was very white and still; that did not change. Had I ground the face to powder with my heel, the eyes would have remained, with the tears that never ran down the cheeks, and never fell.”
I found myself going through such a range of emotions, initially believing Rachel to be the murderous gold digger who is only out for herself. However, there lies the beauty of the story du Maurier has crafted. As the entire story is told from Philip’s point-of-view, it is very possible that he is an unreliable narrator. While subtle hints are planted that Rachel is up to no good the entire time, nothing conclusive is ever discovered. When one looks back on her interactions with Philip, we can say that the only thing she is guilty of is being charming to him. Also, there is a lot of miscommunication between the two characters which could be the cause of so many misunderstandings.
This is a psychological thriller cleverly disguised as a romance. Du Maurier is masterful at creating atmosphere, as throughout the novel, there is this growing feeling of unease. This uncomfortable feeling grows as both Philip and Rachel gradually change throughout the book. By the end of the story, neither character resembles their personalities in the beginning. While Rachel appears as strong and confident, Philip becomes unhinged and, at times, downright abusive. At the end, we never discover the full truth. Years ago, this would have infuriated me, but this reading experience demonstrated my growth as a reader. Sometimes, a more rewarding experience occurs when it is left to the readers to form their own conclusions. Also, I loved how the first and final lines are the same, as this brings the entire story together.
It is difficult for me to say whether or not My Cousin Rachel is better than Rebecca, as I have not read the latter in several years. A reread is definitely needed. However, a strong case can be made that this is the superior work, given that the writer puts the effort of drawing conclusions onto the shoulders of the readers.