Novel Notions Classics Club Reads: Rebecca

Novel Notions Classics Club Reads: Rebecca

Isn’t it amazing how much smaller the internet has made our world? This little blog, started a bit over a year ago, has become a shared home for readers from Indonesia, Malaysia, France, the UK, and the United States. The ladies of the blog have decided to start a cyber book club, reading through the classics together. This book, Rebecca, was our second selection. Whether the novel was new to us or a favorite we were revisiting, it was a wonderful experience to share. Here are some of our thoughts on what we read:

Was this book new to you, or was it a reread? How did reading the novel with a group impact your experience?
Celeste: This book was totally new to me. With many of the classics I haven’t read, I at least know the general synopsis. But somehow I made it to 30 without knowing anything about Rebecca except that Manderley was an incredibly beautiful place and Mrs. Danvers was a super creepy housekeeper. That’s seriously all I knew going into this. And I’m so glad I was able to go in pretty blind, because I was surprised by almost every plot twist. Predictable is not a description I would give to Rebecca. Getting to read this with Emma and Haïfa, who had already read it, and TS who, like me, had not, made for a really fun balance. As always, it sparked a lot of conversation and we found ourselves unable to stick to reading only one chapter a day. Because of the time difference, I would wake up to messages insisting that I read the next two chapters IMMEDIATELY so we could discuss!

Emma: I listened to Rebecca for the first time last year, read by the excellent Anna Massey, and seriously loved it. It surprised the hell out of me. When we were discussing what to read after Jane Eyre, this was a natural choice, the two books being stylistically and thematically linked. I lobbied for it (which wasn’t too hard since everyone agreed pretty much straight away) both because it was one of my recent favourites and because I was so looking forward to the shocked reactions of Celeste and TS as they read it for the first time. Plus, I knew that me and Haifa would be sharing insider knowledge in the private chats with sly grins on our faces…
I already had an idea that I’d want to read some passages in the book as well as listening to the story, but it was examples given from the group that directed my choice more than I expected. At one point Haifa highlighted a passage in which the language got increasingly staccato, the sentences short and abrupt, reflecting the changing mood of the narrator. It’s not something that came across as starkly in the audio but the form on the page was visually very striking- and I would have missed it. Maybe it seems a small thing, but it’s all these little moments, these stylistic choices or flourishes that make great writing. And add up to an amazing reading experience.

Haïfa: I can’t say for sure how many times I read Rebecca before. It’s one of those books I found while rummaging in my parents’ shelves when I was young and read and reread because I enjoyed it but also because I didn’t have unlimited access to new books.
This reread was way more engaging and rewarding than my previous ones, for sure! The ladies at NN know how to challenge my brain and make it look for hidden themes and interpret things I’d have missed otherwise. And as Emma said, it’s been a lot of fun to anticipate and witness TS and Celeste’s reactions to the twists and shocks, which Rebecca has in great abundance.

TS: Well, there are so many classics that I’ve not read, so no surprises that I’m new to this as well. It was an interesting balance to have both Celeste and I reading it for the first time, and Emma and Haïfa rereading. I knew even less than Celeste about what the book was about; nothing about Manderley or even Mrs. Danvers was made known to me. I found that reading Rebecca in a group is the best way to do it as the novel is perfectly suited for book club discussions. Pretty much every single chapter is fodder for thought and conversation. Exactly like what Celeste mentioned above, more often than not I’m ahead because of my timezone and I just couldn’t wait for the rest to wake up and read those chapters which I was dying to talk about.

What was your favorite element of the story? Who was your favorite character?
Celeste: I loved the setting, which I can’t remember ever being my favorite element of any story. But Manderley was so incredibly atmospheric that I could almost smell the azaleas and feel the salt from the sea in the wind. Every description was lush to the point of almost being overwrought, but I thought it worked incredibly well.
I don’t know that I had a favorite character, but Rebecca was hands down the most fleshed out, even though she was never actually present. I didn’t find any of the characters actually likable. Unless Manderley counts as a character!

Emma: Without doubt, the sense of place. I have never seen a place so clearly as Manderley. The depiction of the natural world, especially the flowers, is unparalleled. It’s a descriptive tour de force that hits you with sights and sounds and smells. And more than that, with feeling. You can see yourself walking there, in the ordered beauty of the time before and the menacing wildness of Manderley untamed. It’s incredible. Most definitely a character in its own right, and perhaps the most powerful of them all. Its magnetism holds the characters in dangerous proximity, repeatedly drawing them back– even if only in their dreams.

Haïfa: What I loved most was the peculiar atmosphere of Manderley, the contrast between its beauty and the ever-present, inexplicable feeling of unease and dread it elicited in both the narrator and the reader. Wandering the hallways and the numerous rooms of Manderley or the wooded or flowered tracks leading to the sea with the narrator never failed to make me nervous and expect something to jump at us at each turn.
As for the characters, I admit I didn’t have a favorite. Heck, I didn’t find any of them likable even (and there were plenty of them). Sure, I felt for the narrator’s turmoil and worries and sense of inadequacy. But I couldn’t bring myself to care for her all that much. And you know what? Even if I’m a sucker for good characters worth rooting for, I agree with TS here (see TS’ answer just below). The story, the setting, the prose, the twists and revelations were more than enough to keep me rooted in place, turning the pages beyond our initial rate of a chapter/a day (Who were we kidding?).

TS: The writing, the setting and the plot. Manderley almost jumps out of the pages with powerful and atmospheric descriptions. And never have my senses been so forcibly struck by such evocative and vivid descriptions of flowers, especially the blood red rhododendrons which sounded disturbing, imposing and overwhelming.
None of the human characters can be considered as being close to a favourite. Which is pretty strange from a book that I’ve enjoyed reading this much, as I normally need to have a certain amount of emotional attachment in the characters to make me rate a book this highly. This is why I think the writing and plotting was so remarkable as both anchored and engaged my interest – almost to a feverish degree. Even though I’m not invested in a single character, I was thoroughly invested in the outcome.

In your opinion, what is the main theme of the book?
Celeste: Always make sure you learn about the skeletons in your intended’s metaphorical closet before you let him put a ring on it. Seriously, though, HONESTY. Learn to communicate, married couples!

Emma: The power of imagination and perspective to shape a story (in your own mind as much as in the novel). It’s only when you start to nod along with the narrator about the necessity of some seriously shady behaviour that you realise how deeply you’ve been pulled under…

Haïfa: I would say love. And I don’t mean it in the restrictive sense of a romantic relationship. I’m thinking of the power of love -love of a spouse, love of one’s home and legacy, love of a master, love a family member…- holds over us. The things it make us do. The loyalty and utter devotion it can inspire. The damage it can cause when it’s boundless and blind. And also the healing it bestows when given freely and selflessly.

TS: Make sure you know who are marrying. And PLEASE, COMMUNICATE! And I agree with Emma’s comments above about how one’s imagination can shape the perceived reality around you.

How did Rebecca compare to other classics you’ve read in the past?
Celeste: It’s one of the most unusually structured mysteries I’ve encountered, and I think it has aged really well. While I don’t see it becoming one of my favorite classics, it has definitely secured its spot on the list of classics I’ll reread.

Emma: This was one of the first classics I’ve read that has actually surprised me in a fashion more like a modern thriller. If it were marketed today, it’d have one of those banners after the title. You know the ones– Rebecca: The most addictive psychological thriller you’ll read this year. You’ll never see what’s coming… etc etc. Maybe it’s because classics tend to be so embedded in literary culture that even if you’ve never read them, you kinda know what’s coming. That didn’t happen here at all. Not only did the general misidentification of Daphne du Maurier as a romance writer initially prevent me from picking up the book at all, it then directed my assumptions about what the author was trying to do. I suppose it actually worked in my favour, everything was unexpected. As a result, the book will remain one of the most memorable I’ve read, both for its merit and for the way it completely floored me.

Haïfa: Rebecca is without a doubt one of my favorite classics to date. It is surprising, even when revisited. It’s one of those books brimming with symbols and foreshadowing. You’re sure to gain new understanding each time you reread.

TS: I’ll reiterate that I’ve not read many classics. Regardless, Rebecca is one that I will reread and recommend to others because it has that timeless quality of a well-written, engaging, intense and unpredictable read. Even with barely any action in it, I couldn’t bear to put down the book about three-quarters in. One of the most unexpected reads I’ve ever experienced even when I’ve anticipated it to be so. How is that possible? Read and find out. 🙂

For more of our thoughts on Rebecca, you can find our reviews using the links below:
Celeste, Emma.

If you’d like your own copy of this classic, you can choose from:
the beautiful, the affordable, the audiobook and the ebook.

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