My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Obsession and ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Orphaned as a child, Philip Ashley has been brought up by his cousin Ambrose and expects one day to be heir to his estate in Cornwall. For Ambrose, although by no means elderly, is a settled bachelor, and both he and Philip enjoy their entirely masculine household and way of life. But while Ambrose is making one of his regular trips to Italy for his health, Philip is stunned to receive a letter from him, saying that Ambrose has fallen in love and married the woman that Philip will come to think of as “my cousin Rachel”. Ambrose’s happiness is to be short-lived though. Soon he will die without ever returning home, of a brain tumour according to the official version, but Ambrose has given Philip a different story in his increasingly worrying letters home. Philip is ready to blame Rachel morally, at least, and perhaps legally for his death. And then Rachel visits Philip in Cornwall and he finds himself falling in love. But is Rachel the fascinating and charming woman he sees, or the cold, manipulative money-grabber, and perhaps worse, of Ambrose’s letters…?

I listened to this as an audiobook, competently but not thrillingly narrated by Jonathan Pryce, and I suspect that may have affected my view of it. The story starts and ends brilliantly, but the mid-section, where Philip falls in love with Rachel, seems to go on for ever with nothing actually happening. I tired utterly of Philip’s first person descriptions of Rachel’s perfections and had to fight an urgent desire to tell him to grow up and get a life. If it weren’t for the fact that it was du Maurier and I felt I should have loved it, I would undoubtedly have given up. I certainly wish I’d read the book instead in this instance – I suspect it would still have bored me if I’d been reading but it’s easier to skim the dull repetitive stuff in the written form.

Where du Maurier does excel is in the ambiguity of the characterisation. The basic question of whether Rachel is good or bad is further muddied by us seeing her only through Philip’s eyes and Ambrose’s letters, and it’s not clear how much either of them can be relied on. Certainly neither is objective about Rachel – they see her through the eyes of lust and love. Also, their long years of living without women in their lives mean that neither of them make good judges, especially Philip, who has grown up without mother, sisters or even a nurse or governess. To him, women are as unfamiliar as Martians. There’s also the fact that Ambrose’s illness seems to have been inherited from his father, so may it have been inherited also by Philip? Ambrose’s father had periods where he was delusional and even violent – has this been passed down? There’s undoubtedly an edge of irrationality in some of Philip’s actions, despite us seeing them through his own eyes.

Rachel is the centre of the book, of course, and du Maurier does a brilliant job of having the reader sway in her favour and against her again and again. She has had an unconventional upbringing by a mother who seems to have been morally lax, so it isn’t surprising that she occasionally steps outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable. The time in which the book is set isn’t specified, but it feels to me like early Victorian in terms of clothes, travelling, lifestyle and attitudes. Is she really a hustler out for what she can get? Or is she a victim of Ambrose’s failure to make adequate provision for her? Is she a woman who uses sexual temptation to manipulate men? Or is she a free-thinker – a woman unwilling to limit herself by the unequal moral codes enforced on her by a patriarchal society, which gives women no rights and no financial liberty? Is she villain or victim?

Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how du Maurier would end it – no, of course I’m not going to tell you! But when it came, I felt the ending was perfect. Any other possible ending I could think of wouldn’t have had the same impact – it wouldn’t have left the story and the characters lingering in my mind as they have done.

So if it wasn’t for that tedious over-stretched mid-section, I’d have loved this. The audiobook comes with an introduction from Roger Michell who directed the recent film of the book (which I haven’t seen), and he comments that Philip and Ambrose were not alone in their obsession with Rachel – that du Maurier too had fallen in love with her. This strikes me as very perceptive – it reads as if du Maurier couldn’t stop talking about her, like a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation. Fun for the teenager, not so much for the adults who have to listen to her ecstasies! She redeemed herself in the end though, so overall I’m glad to have read it and would recommend it (and also recommend you brush up on your skim-reading skills before beginning… 😉 )

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

49 thoughts on “My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

  1. I’ve always liked the way du Maurier created those ambiguous characters, FictionFan. And it is a very clever trick on her part to let us see Rachel only through the eyes of those who couldn’t be objective about her. I also like du Maurier’s moody, atmospheric way of writing, too. It’s very effective, I think.

    • I’m pretty sure I’d have enjoyed this more if I’d been reading rather than listening. I did think the way she managed to maintain Rachel’s ambiguity was very well done, and I still haven’t really made up my mind whether she deserved the suspicion or not. The moral of the story is that holiday romances never work out… 😉

  2. This is the next du Maurier that I have planned to read, and I’ll definitely be reading it rather than listening to it based on your review! Normally I find ambiguous characters frustrating to read about, but I love the way du Maurier does it.

    • I’m sure that I’d have enjoyed this more if I’d read it – some books works better as audiobooks than others, and the narrator makes all the difference, and not always in a good way. But the way she keeps Rachel’s ambiguity going all through the book is great – I kept swaying back and forwards between suspecting her and thinking she was being unfairly suspected. Hope you enjoy it! 😀

    • Thank you! I must admit I preferred Rebecca by a wide margin, but I do think that was partly because I didn’t particularly enjoy the narration. Some day I might read this again as an actual paper book and give it a fairer chance…

  3. I read this as a teenager, which means fifty years ago, and to be honest I can’t rmember much of my reaction to it. I suspect, though, that if I re-read it now having met a couple of similar women, my response would be very different.

    • I think I read it as a teenager too, though I really didn’t remember it even as I was reading it. It’s partly a matter of expectations – because I loved Rebecca so much, I ended up feeling a bit disappointed by this one, but I suspect if I’d had no expectations going in, I’d have been saying this was great…

  4. Thanks for this review. I’ve had it on my TBR list forever, but had no clue what it was about. I LOVED her other book, Rebecca. I’ll still read it, butvyouve convinced me to read it instead of listen to it.

    Nice review!

    • I loved Rebecca too, and I suspect that might have meant I had too high expectations going into this one, and that plus the narration maybe made me feel a shade disappointed with that mid-section. But it’s certainly well worth reading – I hope you enjoy it!

    • I mean to watch the movie, but as often as not I never get around to all the films I’d like to see. I’m glad to hear it’s good though. I certainly thought his introduction to this was perceptive and I got the impression from it that he’d be trying to stick pretty closely to the text.

    • I suspect my expectations were too high going in because I’d loved Rebecca so much. And I also had high expectations of Jonathan Pryce as a narrator since I like him as an actor, but I found he was too kinda monotone to really grab my attention. So given that, it’s actually surprising that I enjoyed it as much as I did in the end!

  5. I read this ages ago, maybe a decade. Is it terrible that I don’t remember how it ended?! I do know I enjoyed it, though. It’s the only Du Maurier I’ve read other than Rebecca. Last year I found an anthology of some of her others that I hope to get to eventually.

    • Ha! I read it just before Christmas and wrote my review then, and when I came back to check it before posting I really had to think hard to remember the ending myself! Maybe the ending is less important than Rachel’s character? I loved Rebecca, and I’ve read a couple of her collections of short stories and loved them too, so I do think it was a mistake to listen to the audio – I’d probably have loved this more too if I’d read it on paper…

  6. Could you have said the same for that pesky Goldfinch? I haven’t read du Maurier, but it sounds like I wouldn’t have made the slog through the middle, unless I’d promised to write a blog post about it, LOL…….

    • Haha – if there’s one thing I’m thankful for, it’s that I don’t own the audio version of The Goldfinch – aaarghhh!! Definitely the mid-section needs slimming but when you can’t even skim read it makes it even worse…

  7. Fascinating review! I’m intrigued by this one, which I somehow managed to miss during my “classics years.” Rachel sounds like an interesting character, and I just might have to check this one out (and of course, skip the boring middle to see how it all ends, ha!)

    • Thank you! 😀 Ha – it’s only when I listen to audiobooks that I realise how often I must skim read bits that are repetitive or overlong in books. I’m clearly a lazy reader – somebody needs to invent a skim-reading app for audio! But I do recommend it – Rachel is deliciously ambiguous…

  8. Oh my, skim reading, du Maurier?! I bet others have done it and not admitted it. Wonderful review, FF! I bought a fancy schmancy edition of Rebecca in hopes that I would finally read it. This one’s on my list too.

    • Hahaha – it’s only since I started listening to audiobooks that I’ve come to realise how often I must skim read through overlong mid-sections! And it drives me up the wall that I can’t do it with audio. 😉 I must say I loved Rebecca and think it’s far better than this one, so I hope you love it too – I think you will! 😀

  9. I really do feel as though I would enjoy Du Maurier’s writing, even though I’ve never read anything of hers. Is Rebecca where I should start? Perhaps I should make it my goal to read one classic book a year LOL

  10. Superb review and you have confirmed that I haven’t read this book which is great because part of me felt I must have way back in the day!
    I will read it but I won’t choose to do so via audio so I can put my skim reading skills to good use.

    • Thank you! 😀 I think I read it in my teens but I must say I didn’t remember it even while I was reading it, so maybe I didn’t. Ha – it’s only since I started listening to books on audio that I’ve realised how often I must skim read through mid-sections – somebody needs to invent a skim-reading app for audiobooks! 😉 But I do think this is well worth reading despite my complaints, so I hope you love it when you get to it…

  11. Every time I see this book I have buyers remorse because I foj d a perfectly good copy and left it at a secondhand store because at the time I hadn’t read Rebecca. I enjoyed the suspense of Rebecca and then the reveal at the end so I’m hoping this one will live up to all the praise. I don’t plan to read it anytime soon since all of these other books on my shelf are staring me down 🤣

    • I loved Rebecca and to be honest think it’s a much better book than this one on the whole. But this has much to recommend it too, especially the ambiguity that surrounds Rachel’s character, so I hope you enjoy it when you get to it. Ha – it had been on my list for about thirty years or so, so I do understand the difficulty of too-many-books syndrome… 😉

  12. When I read this I didn’t skim through the middle, I read every word! Like you, I wanted Philip to grow up, although if he had there wouldn’t have been a story. Your holiday romance comment made me snicker 😂

    • Haha – I’m sure I’m a lazy reader – those mid-sections often get skimmed! Yes, Philip really needed to get out more, I feel – and it felt a bit creepy that he wanted to marry his cousin’s widow…

    • I loved Rebecca and have enjoyed some of her short horror stories too but I haven’t read her other novels. This one was good overall, but not nearly as brilliant as Rebecca in my opinion…

    • Haha – I keep having to check my list too! I’m sure I’ve read as many classics that I didn’t include as ones I did. I think it would have felt less saggy if I’d been reading rather than listening, so hopefully it won’t seem so saggy to you – enjoy! 😀

  13. This does sound good, despite the flabby middle which so many books succumb to (you know I struggle with anything over 200 pages 😀 ) so I’d like to read it, having only read Rebecca by du Maurier. I’ll avoid the audiobook version – I’m not a huge fan of Jonathan Pryce and I am an accomplished skim reader…

    Will you be doing one of your Film of the Book posts on this?

  14. No skim reading was needed when I read this – I absolutely loved it! However I did take a while to get into it: I found I had to wait till I was in the right mood. Now I would really like to see the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz in. 😀

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