One of our editors is revisting a favorite classic of hers - My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.
For some reason we can't figure out, My Cousin Rachel isn't as widely known or read as Rebecca, and though we feel both are certainly literary masterpieces, at Literary Corner Cafe we greatly prefer My Cousin Rachel over Rebecca (though we do love both).
My Cousin Rachel is a "deeper" book than Rebecca. The characterization is richer and more complex. The plot is far more intricate, maybe too intricate for the taste of some readers and perhaps this is why the book is not more widely read. Maybe it's just a simple case of marketing.
For those of you not familiar with the book, My Cousin Rachel opens in 1840s Cornwall and revolves around Philip Ashley, a young man set to inherit the estate of his cousin, Ambrose, the man who raised him.
Ambrose married a much younger woman, Rachel, in Italy, and before his death, his letters to Philip indicated that all was not well in the marriage and that Rachel might not be the sweet, innocent girl she presented herself to be to Ambrose. Philip, who genuinely loves his cousin, goes to investigate, but by the time he arrives at Ambrose's villa just outside Florence, Ambrose has died, and, under mysterious circumstances.
Philip returns to England and to the estate he's inherited in Cornwall, but his life is soon disrupted by the arrival of Rachel, herself. From the very beginning, Philip doesn't trust this beautiful and mysterious woman, who at times, seems almost "too good to be true." Complicating matters is the fact that Philip, himself, falls desperately in love with her, though at times, he feels that Rachel is planning on murdering him just like Philip feels she murdered Ambrose.
Although de Maurier's plotting in My Cousin Rachel is indeed intricate, the tension and suspense flow primarily from her richness and complexity of character, instead. We find ourselves desperately wanting to know exactly who Rachel is and what she wants from Philip. Did she kill Ambrose, as Philip suspects or did she love him dearly, as she contends? Is Philip correct in his assumptions about Rachel, and what is he going to do about the fact that he, himself, now loves her desperately? One thing we do know for sure is that the whole scenario is spiraling uncontrollably downward and it's going to end in tragedy - for someone. But who? And what will be the consequence?
Another remarkable thing about My Cousin Rachel is its atmosphere. The sense of foreboding and doom is thicker than an old-fashioned London "pea souper." Once you get "into" the book, you can't put it down and once you finish it, you can't forget it. Ever. I first read the book as a teenager and I can't forget it (nor do I want to) twenty years later.
The only book that comes close to My Cousin Rachel, at least in our opinion, is Arthur Philips' 2007 publication, Angelica, set in late-Victorian London.
While any time is a good time to read My Cousin Rachel, wintertime is best. This is a book meant to be read by a cozy fire, with a cup of hot chocolate or mulled cider in hand. However, I first read it during the summertime, in my mother's beautiful English style garden.
Whenever you choose to read this masterful book, please, just read it. If you love a good mystery, if you love richness of character, if you love everything a master writer can do, you certainly won't regret the time spent with this once-in-a-lifetime book.