"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
I'm a pretty harsh critic of ambiguity in fiction. All too often it's done as a cop-out, loose plot threads left hanging due to authorial laziness or inadequacy. Why do the work of crafting a coherent plot when you can just leave things vague and call it artsy?
But there are some authors who do the whole ambiguity thing brilliantly, and Daphne duMaurier is one of them. This is the second book of hers I've read, and as much as I loved Rebecca, in a lot of ways My Cousin Rachel is even better. Richer, subtler, stranger. I love me a good unreliable narrator, and Philip Ashley may be my new all-time favorite. He's such a doofus. Or is he?
Philip is the 24-year-old adopted son and heir of his cousin Ambrose Ashley, a lifelong bachelor who owns an estate in Cornwall, England. But when Ambrose is obliged, for health reasons, to spend a winter in Italy, he shocks Philip by meeting and then marrying their distant cousin Rachel Sangalletti. Ambrose had never previously shown much interest in women, certainly not in marrying them, and Philip fears he will not only lose the close relationship he treasures with his only parent and confidante, but that he will even be forced out of his home and lose his inheritance to any children Ambrose and Rachel may produce. It's a huge blow, and Philip begins to loathe his cousin Rachel without ever having met her.
And soon, he has even more reason to detest her, for he begins to receive scrawled, incoherent letters from an apparently very ill Ambrose. "She watches me all the time... there is no one I can trust." "For God's sake, come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment." But before Philip can reach him in Italy, Ambrose has died.
Though his friends and neighbors all attribute Ambrose's death to the same type of brain tumor that had killed his father, Philip is resolute in blaming the hated Rachel. He vows vengeance upon her.
But that all changes when Rachel herself appears at the manor, young and beautiful and utterly charming. Philip, so unaccustomed to spending time with women, falls for her hard. But is she what she seems to be? Is she simply there to return Ambrose's effects, or is she after something else? And is Philip really as stupid and naïve as he appears, or is he portraying himself that way for some ulterior reason?
This book has quite a bit in common with Rebecca, and yet it is not (as I had suspected going in) a hacky attempt to cash in on that novel's popularity. The similarities certainly do stack up: There is the brilliant, foreshadowing, tone-setting first chapter, with its iconic opening line ("They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days" is just as good as "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again", in my opinion). There is the young, callow narrator, irrationally jealous of the unseen, unknown, larger-than-life titular woman. There's the moody Cornwall estate, recently blighted by death. There's the structure of the story itself, the way its tone and its central mystery pull the reader in and refuse to let go. The dark, haunting themes. The plot twists and sucker punches.
But as I said above, My Cousin Rachel is the better novel. Where Rebecca ties up its riddles pretty cleanly by the end, this book only seems to do so. Because the more I thought about it, the more the plot warped and unraveled, and soon I'd come up with a dozen conflicting theories, each as plausible as the last.
Because there are two great unknowns in this book: the two main characters Philip and Rachel. One I felt I knew all too intimately, for he was telling the story. The other loomed large throughout but was always, essentially, opaque. And as Philip's allegiances shifted, my opinion would shift as well - he is so obviously a moron that whatever he believed about Rachel, I would take the opposite opinion. Oh, you think she poisoned Ambrose? Shut up, you gullible dumbass, she was clearly devoted to him. Oh, you're stupidly infatuated with her now? Isn't it obvious she's a murderer??
But taking Philip's idiocy at face value is perhaps a mistake. He's telling this story to himself, too, and sometimes it's better to convince yourself of your own ignorance and incompetence than to take responsibility for your own appalling actions. The brilliant thing about this novel, I think, is that in the end it left me asking not "Who is Rachel?" but "Who is Philip?"