My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier (1951)

Wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up this du Maurier – however, I knew it must be a good story as I have been reading good reviews of it around the interblogs, and I had enjoyed her “Rebecca”. So I dove (or is it “dived”) in, and although it took a tiny bit long to get going, this was a fast-moving crackerjack story filled with jealousy and suspense. (Crackerjack = really good.)

Set in the middle of the nineteenth century in a large house in Cornwall, the story opens with protagonist Philip Ashley being shown a criminal being hung in the village crossroads. His uncle and guardian Ambrose is teaching him about life and this event makes a big impression on Philip as his life proceeds.

He and Ambrose are inseparable as father/guardian and son, both thinking the world of the other and looking to each other to bounce ideas and perspectives around. Ambrose has been preparing Philip for his future inherited role as owner of the large mansion that they currently live in and the future is expected to be very smooth sailing. However, Ambrose becomes sick and as part of his cure, his doctors prescribe some time in Italy where he proceeds to meet and fall in love with Rachel, an English widow (formerly married to a rich Italian man). Together they marry with the intention of both returning to England to live in Cornwall.

However, Ambrose’s health takes a turn for the worst and although there are infrequent communications between him and Philip, it is not known in Cornwall quite how his marriage to Rachel really is. Ambrose sends a letter here and there with troubling hints that snowball as time goes on – does Rachel love him for himself or for his money and wealth? What happened to her earlier husband? And is she trying to poison him?…

A note arrives from Ambrose which is ambiguous about his health and full of Ambrose’s concern for his own safety from Rachel, so young Philip takes a carriage and travels to Italy to see for himself just how Ambrose really is. After a long journey, Philip arrives in Italy, but it is too late. Ambrose has died and has been buried in Florence miles away from his family plot in Cornwall. Rachel has taken most of his things, closed the house and moved away.

It is here, really, that the plot thickens and intrigue arises: Rachel is not there, all Ambrose’s things are gone (minus his old hat), and no one seems to know where she has gone. Philip is crushed at his guardian’s death and there are lots of unanswered questions — did Rachel have a hand in his death? His last note to Philip had mentioned his suspicion about her poisoning him….

Philip returns to England, now ready to inherit the estate in a few months when he turns twenty-five years old. Rachel turns up and now things get complicated: Philips is faced with reluctantly falling in love with her whilst also considering the possibilities that she is funneling his money into an account in Italy with plans of returning and that Ambrose may have died in suspicious circumstances. Will the same fate occur to him as happened to his uncle?

This really was a good read – an excellent character development study of a young man coming of age and falling heavily in love and yet at the same time, having his suspicions of her. His trustee and friends all see Rachel for what she is, but he is torn between defending her and yet also looking at the clues of her behavior. Du Maurier does a great job of describing his conflicted mind, of how on the hand Philip adores her and is willing to give her everything in the estate and then, on the other hand, how his family and friends fan his doubts of her intentions. Du Maurier portrays the novel from Philip’s point of view and as he is the one experiencing these high levels of emotions, it brings his unreliability to the fore (and you know I loves me an unreliable narrator).

And all of the story builds to this magnificent surprise ending that refers back to the beginning, and which I won’t mention here because I would like you to read it. But suffice to say that it will probably blow your socks off. (Typical du Maurier MO.)  It’s very Po-Mo and you as the reader are left wondering what the true story was – was Rachel guilty? It definitely keeps you guessing for hours after you turn the last page.

A very, very good read.