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My Cousin Rachel

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Cornwall. Love (or lust? or hate?). An unreliable narrator. This is My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

I looked on her in profile. She was always a stranger, thus...But full-face, when she smiled, a stranger never. The Rachel that I knew, that I had loved.

How I got the book: The DC Public Library. The copy I received was a 2009 reprint of the book, originally published in 1951. Thus I feel no compunction to remake the cover to suit a contemporary audience--numerous covers for numerous recent editions exist. Mine had a moody picture of an English manor home on the cover, which I think was wise--many feature a woman, and given the importance of Rachel’s appearance in the story, I think it is better to leave her wholly to the imagination.

The writer: Daphne du Maurier. I’ve long been a fan, having read her most famous novel, Rebecca, on at least two occasions over the years. Strangely, I never realized she had written other books, when in fact she was seventeen novels and a clutch of nonfiction books. (Full disclosure: I shrieked a little in excitement when I got to the list for 1952 and saw her name there. And I’m equally excited to read her again for 1962.)

The book: A gloomy, moody, claustrophobic first-person tale of passion and mystery. Unlike the last book I read for this project, the plot is very straightforward and holds, I would argue, only a few key surprises. All the tension here comes from our limited point-of-view, specifically that of Philip Ashley, sole heir of his cousin/guardian Ambrose, whose death abroad leaves Philip the head of a rich Cornwall estate while leaving Ambrose’s recently-taken wife, the distant cousin Rachel of the title, unaccounted for in his unchanged will.

Philip suspects Rachel is implicated in the death of his beloved guardian, but when she arrives at his home in Cornwall he quickly changes his mind, not only accepting her as family but coming to long for the older woman to become his own. His naivete, his limited access to information, his inability to consult with the deceased Ambrose about the circumstances of the latter’s death, his quashed suspicisions that begin once again to grow--these are the stuffs of du Maurier’s novel, and she deploys them to devastating effect.

To say much more would be to rob other readers of the enjoyment of this novel. Some may find it a bit slow, though I did not mind lingering in Philip’s troubled mind. In the project, this book proved the first unqualified delight, and I look forward to reading more of du Maurier’s novels.

Next up is The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain. Since this book is, it seems, mostly highly recommended by fans of The Robe, I’m anticipating a slog. But I’ll be rewarded with John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden afterwards, so that’s some motivation. Until then, read on!