As much as I loved DuMaurier's novel Rebecca, in ways it has made me more hesitant to pick up more of DuMaurier's novels, afraid that they couldn't possibly live up to Rebecca. I have had this novel for awhile now (in fact if Amazon is to be believed, I've had this novel for over three years, meaning it's moved with me from Germany to Virginia to Georgia to Illinois/Iowa) but the monthly keyword challenge is what finally inspired me to actually sit down and read it since it has a word related to the February keyword "family" in it.
My Cousin Rachel, like Rebecca, is a gothic novel, and this one is set in some undetermined time in 19th century England - a time when people used carriages and horses to go into town, when a letter from a different country took over three weeks to arrive, and telegrams and trains don't seem to exist or be in common usage yet. The narrator, 24 year old Philip, has been raised by his cousin Ambrose in a house without women. Ambrose was a bachelor for life, and didn't need any women around with their desire for order and cleanliness, and as a result, I didn't get the impression that Philip or Ambrose really understood them at all. Due to health issues, Ambrose spends most winters on the continent, until one winter he visits Florence to explore the gardens, where he meets Rachel. Philip only hears everything through letters, long delayed and occasionally sporadic, but Ambrose and Rachel get married, Ambrose extends his stay in Florence, and Philip feels jealous and neglected. Eventually two letters arrive from Ambrose, both odd, alluding to illness, and carrying a certain tone of paranoia regarding Rachel, calling her his torment, claiming that she is watching and monitoring him. Philip, being the loyal cousin that he is, races to Florence, only to discover that his cousin died three weeks previously, the letter only arriving after his departure, and Rachel has left the villa and the town.
Upon his return home, the will declares Philip heir to everything though he must remain under his godfather's guardianship until 25 years of age to ensure he is of sound moral character. Philip blames Rachel for his cousin's death, thinking her a murderer, and is rather shocked when he hears she plans to visit his home soon. Planning to confront her, he instead becomes fascinated by her, the woman in question not looking at like the woman he created in his mind. During her stay, the reader continues to question what is going on. Did Rachel poison Ambrose or did he die of natural causes? His behavior was odd but Ambrose's own father died of a brain tumor with similar changes in attitude and personality. I think this was the biggest difference to me between Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel - in Rebecca, I very definitely wanted to know about the past, and what mystery was being hidden on the grounds of Manderley while in the case of My Cousin Rachel I was more interested in how the relationships would develop. Was Rachel a conniving murderer and opportunist? Is she completely innocent? Or is there some compromise between the two, where she may not resort to murder, but is certainly willing to manipulate people and situations for her benefit? The interesting thing is that in a way I didn't even care because I actually quite liked Rachel, even though I was only getting Philip's perspective of her. I didn't completely trust her, but I prefered her to Philip.
Even though he is the narrator, Philip does not come off in a good light at all. Given his upbringing, not only does he not seem to understand women, he also has some views that could only be described as sexist and misogynistic, and not simply in the "he's a man in the 19th century" way. Of course, I'm going to judge a character when he owns a library and says he doesn't spend much time reading. He talks constantly about how awesome bachelor life with his cousin was, and how women just get in the way (of what? your reading time that you don't use? your hunting that you also don't seem to do? walking around the estate restlessly?); he is also incredibly sheltered, having only ever left the estate to go to school, and then returned to the family home. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but Philip seems to take glory in his unworldly ways, his lack of culture and also displays a certain amount of xenophobia (against those crazy Italians), showing little to no interest in expanding his horizons. He often acts like a petulant child and is unwilling to take advice from others. At first, he is ready to judge Rachel based on the letter from a sick man; later, when there is indeed reason to question her motives, he refuses to take anyone's advice and makes dramatic, thoughtless decisions. Men in the novel refer to Rachel as impulsive repeatedly but as Philip's godfather rightly points out, that word applies just as much to him.
DuMaurier doesn't exactly give straight answers in this novel either - the end itself is up for question, and it's up to the reader to decide what they believe about Rachel, Ambrose and Philip. From other reviews, I think I may have taken a more favorable view of Rachel then some others, but Philip honestly just pissed me off. However, I think it worked for the novel because I wasn't rooting for him, and even I was questioning his decision making process in regards to Rachel. Hopefully, it won't take me three more years to read another DuMaurier novel (is Jamaica Inn a good follow up? I already have that one at home).