Aaargh. My wife did it to me again. She has a penchant for deciding to read a classic (or older) work and leaving it on her nightstand. I see it there and tell myself, "I'll read just the first few pages," and before I know it, I've read the whole thing while my own book languishes (and Mrs. Agatho smugly comments on her excellent taste in fiction).
Last week Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca showed up on that nightstand. A rather large book, I thought, turning it over in my hands. Nice cover art. Let's just see what comes after that whole "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" thingy.... I finished it last night. As I often do when I've finished an older book, I ask myself, "Could this book have been published today?" And I think the answer is likely No.
There are a few "problems" (note use of scare quotes) in the book that would make it a very tough sell today. Specifically:
1. The first two chapters (only about 12 printed pages) are heavily descriptive. Truthfully, it's tough to get through them, but I was determined to plow on. Those first pages are probably the equivalent of say 25 manuscript pages. I think agents and editors would read those pages and think, "Ack! Too much" - and that would be the end of that. Things move much more quickly after page 12 (though the pacing does suffer from problems for much of the first half of the book); but today's publishing climate isn't patient. Every day agents make decisions based on the first 5-10 pages of a book. If there are any agents out there who'd read past page 5 of Rebecca without tossing it into the recycle bin, please raise your hands.
2. The narrator is really problematic. I see what du Maurier was doing. She wanted to contrast the new Mrs. de Winter -- mousy, insecure, more than a little pathetic, and rather annoyingly stubborn and obstinate -- with the first, dead Mrs. de Winter. I'm not a big find of narrators without names; I usually find the device pretentious, but here it works. Our narrator can never be as much of a presence as Rebecca; Rebecca's is the only woman's name that matters. du Maurier starts off on a sure footing here; we come to like our narrator, whose shyness masks a keen ability to observe (the scenes with Mrs. van Hopper are hilarious). She's a little mewling, but she's also 21 years old, so one expects some immaturity. But by the time she gets to Manderley, she's basically a lap dog and a whiner. I was annoyed time and again when people extend the hand of friendship to her, only to have her slap it away. She wants to be mistress of Manderley, but she won't do anything to step into the role.
But this isn't just a matter of personal taste. I don't think today's readers (editors, agents) would think modern/contemporary women would like or be able to relate to the heroine. While she's not with a certain ironic humor, she's not the strong, independent woman we like to see in our sleuths or heroines. She's an observer, not an actor.
3. This book is quite a bit longer than it should be. It's overwritten, with page after page that doesn't add to plot or character. The only people who can write books this long are authors who already have best-sellers under their belts. I can see the rejection letters (emails) now: "The core of the story is good, and there are some good plot twists, but there's just too much weighing it down. Best of luck with it."
Now let me offer a few thoughts from a reader's point of view, not a publisher's. The three points of dismissal above have the horrible result of utterly annihilating this book's many accomplishments. Specifically:
*This must be one of the very earliest novels to look closely at narcissistic personality disorder. Because that was Rebecca in a nutshell: a classic narcissist. And the way that du Maurier moves Rebecca so slowly and tantalizingly from a worshipped goddess to a vicious nymphomaniac is extremely skillful. I can't think of any portrait of a narcissist that is more effective. And du Maurier does all of this in retrospect, with a dead woman.
*du Maurier also does an excellent job with the unreliable narrator. I wish I could put a finger on exactly how the narrator's neurosis would be classified. Mrs. de Winter is forever extrapolating into the future, envisioning how scenarios will play out. She builds grand short stories in her mind, often with more than a bit of paranoia. She can't really seem to form attachments, except to Max, whom she worships: Perhaps she suffers from borderline disorder? (On a side note, I have always appreciated a good unreliable narrator, but I'm often surprised by how much readers hate them.)
*This book is expertly plotted. du Maurier provides the hints required by fair play, but there are at least four major plot twists that make the reader gasp. (Compare that to ONE in Gone Girl or A Kiss Before Dying). Writers really should study this book to see how a simple plot can be woven into a great mystery.
I'll close with just a few random thoughts. First, on more than one occasion I found myself disconcerted by the writing. I don't think I've ever read a book where I swung between thinking "Wow" and thinking "Ugh." If you read it, you'll see that the author occasionally gets into a mode where she spits out 50 or 60 simple sentences in a row. Once you notice it, you can't un-notice it. It put me off, that's for sure. I have to think du Maurier had a reason for doing this, because clearly she was capable of much, much better. I wonder...
Also, I'd been completely unaware that du Maurier faced serious allegations of plagarism with this book (and other works, too). From the little I read, it sounds like the allegations may have a strong basis. However, one could accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism, too, of course.
Finally, and I should have mentioned this earlier -- everything I said about the book not being publishable today is wrong. Why? Because du Maurier had strong family, society, and publishing contacts. Many people today with much less talent than du Maurier get published for exactly that reason.