I went into this book knowing absolutely nothing about it, which I am so glad of because I would have had a very different reading experience otherwise. If, therefore, you value the spoiler-free reading experience like I do, be warned that there are spoilers ahead and that this is a book for which it is particularly important to avoid them!
If you have ignored my advice and would like to read on despite not having read the book, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. Philip is a young landowner who was brought up by his recently deceased cousin Ambrose. Ambrose, who had been staying in Italy to avoid the harsh Cornish winters, married a distant Italian relative called Rachel and died shortly afterwards, but not before sending some letters indicating that Rachel herself may have been involved in his illness and death. Philip thus vows a vendetta against her. This vendetta is dropped the moment he meets her as she is nothing like he expected. A lesser writer would have just told us how charming Rachel was, but Daphne Du Maurier lets Rachel charm us instead. Right from her first conversation with Philip, she is funny and down-to-earth. How could Philip, and we readers too, have possibly meant to accuse her of foul play? As time goes on, Philip becomes increasingly infatuated with Rachel, to the point where there is the most tastefully implied sex-scene ever written and Philip takes this to mean that they are now engaged (like a gender-reversed Dido and Aeneas), though this isn’t all that important to the plot. What is important is Philip’s infatuation and the question of whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose and means to kill Philip too.
Philip’s likeness to Ambrose is another thing that Du Maurier masterfully depicts. Sure enough, characters frequently say how alike they are in both physical appearance and personality, but yet again Du Maurier shows us this more than she tells us: We are given a front seat as Philip falls head over heels for Rachel just like Ambrose did, as he grows possessive over her to the point of violence just like Ambrose and, eventually, as he becomes suspicious of her intentions towards him. The fact that Rachel is a cousin to them both is also clever, as it’s almost as if the title implies that the whole novel could be told by Ambrose and it would be just the same.
One of the great triumphs of the novel is that it keeps one guessing throughout. I went from thinking she’d killed Ambrose to being sure she hadn’t, as Philip did. I also became doubtful and then had my faith in her restored as he did, too late to save her. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but seems to weigh in favour of Rachel. I do wonder what it was she was doing with those laburnum seeds and why they disappeared, but of course she’s a gardener, so there could be a perfectly reasonable explanation and it’s more than hinted that there is. In that case, one of the best messages of the book is that things are a matter of perspective. From Rachel’s point of view, she falls in love with a man who becomes distant and suspicious before dying. She then visits his young cousin, who develops an almost child-like obsession with her. Of course, he also becomes violent and then ill and then suspicious. No wonder she’d think of returning to Italy! Her demise as a result of Philip’s indirect actions, and his previous violence towards her, show us that we were wary of the wrong person all along.
My favourite thing about the novel was without a doubt the relationship between Rachel and Philip, brought to life by Du Maurier’s expert characterisation of them both. Philip is so naïve and easily impressed by this charming Italian woman. His emotional ups and downs and resulting behaviour, while often unacceptable, are totally believable. Rachel knows exactly how to manage him, whether she’s manipulating him for her own gains or just doing her best to handle the force of nature that is her cousin Philip. Their dynamic is captivating.
The perfect note on which to end this review is the way that the beginning and ending are connected. The opening scene is of a young Philip encountering a hanged man blackened with tar and being warned by Ambrose that this is what happens to murderers. I assumed that this was just a great opener, a way of sucking you in so that you were several pages in before you realised it (of course I found out later that the whole book does this). If you were to read into it early on, you might imagine it was foreshadowing Rachel’s fate. However, the final lines of the book bring one right back to that gruesome opening scene, along with full understanding of why it was there at all. It gave me chills.
This is the first Du Maurier book I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last. Rebecca is next on my list due to the many recommendations I have received, and of course the commendation of its great fame! As for My Cousin Rachel, it was a real joy to read and its mastery of imagery, characters and mystery will stay with me for some time to come.