Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 11)

Watership Down – Richard Adams

I’d heard a lot of pop-culture references to Watership Down, but before I read it I didn’t know anything really about it (except that it was about bunnies…? maybe?). Turns out it’s a 1972 children’s adventure novel by English author Richard Adams, based on a meandering story he made up to entertain his daughters during a long road trip.

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(His daughters told him it was so good, he should write it down, so he did… only to have it rejected by several publishers on the grounds that it was “too grown up for children”. So, I guess the Adams clan have mature tastes?)

The story is set in the Berkshire and Hampshire countryside, near where Adams and his family lived. As I suspected, it revolves around a group of anthropomorphised rabbits from the Sandleford warren. The inciting incident comes quickly, when a small weirdo rabbit named Fiver has a “frightening vision” of the warren’s imminent destruction.

He convinces his best mate, Hazel, to help him round up as many of their rabbit friends as possible and escape before the Bad Thing comes (he doesn’t know what it is, just that it’s Bad). Most of the rabbits tell them to bugger off, understandably, but a handful of them agree to follow Hazel and Fiver into the great unknown.

The plot device of a psychic rabbit was really quite baffling, but I tried to just go with it – and good thing, too, because most of the action throughout Watership Down relies on Fiver sensing trouble. Other than that, Adams does a pretty convincing job of depicting the lives of rabbits. He even invents language, culture, and mythology for them, so it’s thoroughly believable… again, aside from the preternatural foresight thing.

Anyway, Hazel and Fiver and co. repeatedly escape predators by the skin of their teeth. Sometimes, they befriend them (like the large seagull who later returns to help them fight off other Evil rabbits). They join – and then escape – a warren where rabbits are being bred for food. They build their own warren on Watership Down (yes, it’s the name of a place, rather than a plot point about a sinking vessel), but soon have to face up to the existential crisis of an absence of does (female rabbits). They manage to collect a couple from a nearby farm, but not enough to stave off their colony’s collapse.

So, their big final battle – the long-awaited climax of Watership Down – sees them infiltrate the Efrafra warren, ruled by the tyrannical despot General Woundwort. They manage to smuggle out enough does for requisite babymaking (like rabbits, etc), but the General is not easily defeated.

I’m not sure if I read it “right”, but Watership Down seemed to me like an indictment of anthropogenic climate change and the exploitative agricultural practices of capitalism, cloaked in a children’s story with a few made up words (the language of “lapine”, as invented by Adams). Others have read all kinds of stuff into it, too; it could be an allegory for class struggle, the Cold War, fascism, extremism… basically, Hazel and Fiver and co. are an oppressed minority who just want to LIVE, dammit, and they’ll fight to the death against the forces that would stop them doing so.

Adams, though, insists that it was never his intention to mirror such grown-up realities in his children’s book. He intended Watership Down to be “only a made-up story … in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls,” he told the BBC in 2007. Still, whatever he meant by it, it clearly has motifs and themes that work on multiple levels.

It seemed unnecessarily long, though, particularly toward the end. It all just got a bit formulaic: just as you think the rabbits are safe and happy, a new danger arises that looks set to doom them, only they overcome it by working together and appreciating each other’s strengths. As an armchair editor, I would’ve suggested splitting the story in two, and made the whole Efrafra business a sequel (or, at least, a second volume – Watership Down 2: Back In The Warren).

As it stands, the popularity of this children’s book about bunnies persists, fifty years after its release. It’s won a bunch of awards (including the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize), and it’s been adapted for film and television multiple times (including a 2018 Netflix series). I’m glad to have read it, so I can finally “get” all those pop culture references, but I doubt I’ll be revisiting it – even if there was a kid around to read it to, I doubt I could get them to sit still for long enough.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Watership Down:

  • “Uhh it was good uhh hmm which should I say uuh genralwoundfart or whatever the &)@?@! His name is loo” – nickie
  • “I believe that some time ago, some kid read this, and then began replacing the rabbits for zombies, thus, the walking dead was born.” – Mauricio Cerna
  • “Beautiful writing and boring story!” – N. Lassiter
  • “I did not enjoy Watership Down. It hink that it was pointless to write a 400+ page long book about bunnies having problems.” – N:) *

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – Emily M Danforth

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post has one of the best opening lines ever (“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”). Plus, this Penguin edition is absolutely gorgeous, with sprayed edges in the colours of the Pride flag. I didn’t know much else about it when I picked it up, but hey: that was enough to convince me!

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It turns out, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age young adult novel. The titular character, Cameron, is a 12-year-old girl living in rural Montana in the early ’90s (actually, in Danforth’s hometown of Miles City). The story begins the summer Cameron’s life veers wildly off course.

Her parents die suddenly, tragically, in a car crash (NOT a spoiler, see the opening line!). To her great shame, Cameron’s first reaction upon hearing the news of their death is relief. Earlier that day, she had been kissing her best friend Irene (and shoplifting with her, too, but that’s by the by). That might not seem like a shocking secret to be hiding in today’s day and age, but in early ’90s rural Montana? You can understand Cameron’s fervent fear of discovery.

The coincidental timing – of Cameron’s sexual awakening and her parent’s death – makes for a tangled mess of emotions, one that she struggles throughout the novel to untangle. Cameron doesn’t just kiss Irene, she kisses other girls too, and even falls in love with one of them. The guilt she feels over her attractions is compounded by the influence of her new guardian, born-again conservative Aunt Ruth.

Things go from bad to worse when Cameron is unceremoniously outed by the straight girl with whom she had fallen in love. Aunt Ruth “has no choice” but to send Cameron to God’s Promise (blegh), a religious boarding school (i.e., conversion camp) that promises to “cure” her (i.e., pray away the gay).

So, here seems as good a point as any to mention a few things. First off, big time trigger warnings for The Miseducation Of Cameron Post: death, grief, conversion “therapy”, self harm, and internalised homophobia. Secondly, if you’re not familiar with conversion “therapy”, this explainer from the Australian Human Rights Institute of UNSW describes it as “a pseudoscientific practice whereby an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to methods of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is instigated by individuals with the aim of changing their sexual orientation and / or gender identity”. Danforth has said that The Miseducation Of Cameron Post was inspired by the 2005 case of Zach Stark, a young adult who was sent to one such conversion camp after coming out to his parents. Some Australian jurisdictions have outlawed these programs, and momentum is growing for a nationwide ban; of course, the state of play is more dire in other parts of the world. If you want to know more, see if your local LGBTQI+ action groups have any resources.

Okay, now back to the story. Ironically, at God’s Promise, Cameron finds the kind of queer community she was missing back in Montana. Danforth stops short of depicting any gory physical abuse at the hands of the camp’s staff, but it’s clear that Cameron and her new friends are suffering and struggling with the pseudo-therapeutic “treatment” the staff provides. It was a really interesting approach on Danforth’s part. The pastor and his staff aren’t typical “monsters”, and it’s not always easy to hate them; sometimes, they seem to genuinely care for their charges and believe that they’re doing what’s best for them. That makes for confused emotions and allegiances in the reader – a good reflection of the main character’s own journey.

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is, in a sense, a “coming out novel”, but it’s much darker and less trope-y than that label implies. Cameron’s sexual identity isn’t reduced to a one-off forbidden Sapphic love affair, born of two people with undeniable chemistry who just happen to be the same gender. Cameron is deep-in-her-bones queer, and she seems to have a knack for finding girls who are just as curious-slash-scared as she is, even in rural Montana, even at conversion camp.

The prose is tactile, well-paced, and rich without being overwhelming. Danforth gradually adds layer after layer, and shows remarkable restraint in relaying a highly emotive story. She also writes in a kind of quasi-nostalgic style that shits me no end when it’s written by/for straight men, but resonates so hard for me when it’s written by/for queer women; maybe that’s a relatability thing? I’m conscious of my own biases as a reader, and this is probably one of them.

Of course, because The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is good and interesting and actually reflects the lived experiences of some young queer people, it’s been banned any number of times, most notably in Delaware in 2014. A school board removed it from the district’s summer reading list, citing “inappropriate language” as the reason – ha! Disingenuous tools. Danforth’s response to the news was perfect, so I’ve reproduced it in full here:

“I’m proud that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is now in the company of so, so many novels that have been banned and challenged and censored throughout history—many of them among my all-time favorites, the very books that shaped me as a reader, a writer, and a person. It seems that everyone except you knows that censoring, or even attempting to censor a book, only makes it more appealing to curious readers, which certainly seems to be true in this case. I’m honored to be told that dozens of local readers have already begun seeking out my novel, something they almost certainly wouldn’t have done before you made this completely unnecessary decision.”

Emily M. Danforth (author of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post)

All told, I loved The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – it’s a difficult read at times, but an immersive and impressive one, a must for fans of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. While it’s billed as a young adult novel, and I’m sure there are plenty of teens who get a lot out of it, I think it will actually resonate most for adult-adults, the ones who actually grew up during or before Cameron’s adolescence. Speaking as one of those, my hat goes off to Danforth, and I look forward to reading more from her.

The Children Act – Ian McEwan

I started off this year reading and reviewing Ian McEwan’s Atonement. While I didn’t love it, I thought it might be nice to book-end the year with another one of his that’s been on my to-read shelf for years: The Children Act. It’s named for a UK Act of Parliament (Children Act 1989), and it has a fist-pump of a premise; a High Court judge is called to rule on the case of a 17-year-old boy refusing life-saving medical treatment on religious grounds.

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Really, though, The Children Act is about the life of the judge, Fiona Maye, which is thrown into tumult when her long-time husband approaches her and tells her up-front he’d like to have an affair. He’s even got the woman all picked out, a 28-year-old statistician. It sounds like he’s being quite reasonable about the whole thing to me, but Fiona flies off the handle and gives him the boot. So, she’s not exactly in the best frame of mind when this kid’s case comes across her desk.

The 17-year-old Adam is a Jehovah’s Witness. He and his parents both take the “no blood products” rule pretty damn seriously, and refuse to consent to a transfusion, despite the fact that it means Adam’s leukemia will kill him. If Adam were legally an adult, there wouldn’t be anything his doctors could do to contest the decision, but seeing as he’s a few months shy of his 18th birthday, they appeal to the Family Court – to Fiona.

McEwan’s prose suits this story far better than it did Atonement. Atonement was about kids and self-destructive deception, while The Children Act is about ethics and mortality. His writing, which felt overwrought and pompous in Atonement, seems natural in the context of a well-educated very-British judge contemplating marriage and death.

I was surprised by how quickly the story moved. The Children Act is a short book (my edition runs 215 pages), but by half-way through Fiona had already made her ruling in Adam’s case. I was a bit mystified as to what could be left to say, and worried that McEwan might devote the remaining 100+ pages to the resolution of her marital woes – luckily, he cleared that low bar.

Fiona’s husband returns home, though things between them remain strained (at best), and she begins to receive letters from Adam. At first, they simply express gratitude for her treatment of his case, and anger at the hypocrisy of religion. Fiona decides to ignore the letters, hoping Adam would move on once he’d got it all off his chest, but then… well, it’s a bummer, I’ll tell you that much. The second half of The Children Act shifts down the dark gradient from weird to depressing real fast.

McEwan explained, after The Children Act was published in 2014, that he’d drawn his inspiration from a dinner party with a bench of judges (yes, that’s the correct collective noun, and yes, he actually pointed that out in the interview – tosser). He found that the way the judges spoke to one another, and the way they wrote their judgements, reminded him eerily of the ways novelists speak and debate each other’s work. It’s not hard to see how the plot of The Children Act was just a hop-skip-and-jump away from that experience, especially if red wine was involved.

So, I liked The Children Act much more than Atonement, but honestly? The book just got me really excited to watch the film, more than anything else. It stars Emma Thompson (love!) and Stanley Tucci (love, love, love!), and from the trailer I’ve decided that the film format suits McEwan’s plot far better than his writing does. I’m beginning to suspect that McEwan just isn’t for me… but there’s a couple more on the to-read shelf yet, so stay tuned for a final ruling.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Children Act:

  • “A strange tale. McEwan is a good writer. Unsure how many stars this book deserves. Had to give a star, so I gave it 1.” – Alex from Montreal
  • “This is a potboiler fleshed out with interminable accounts of litigation.” – Judge Bill Swann
  • “No one to like in this very boring novel that was as dull as the weather in England.” – KC Foodie
  • “I guess the moral of the story is that we need to leave religious people alone and not try to deprive them of meaning in their lives. I would agree to that if they would only leave the rest of us alone to find our own meaning. This book is horrible. I would rather read Kierkegaard.” – ronaldk240
  • “No ones life could be so boring that he or she could sit down and enjoy reading this book” – Greg W

Misery – Stephen King

Can you imagine a writer so twisted that they write a best-selling book about a writer who is kidnapped, abused, and forced to write a novel by an axe-wielding villain? Such an idea could only come from the mind of the King of Horror, Stephen King! Misery is his 1987 psychological horror novel with that exact premise.

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The main character, Paul Sheldon, is a 42-year-old author. He has recently published the final installment of his best-selling Victorian romance series, much to his relief; finally, he’ll be able to focus on his more Serious Literary(TM) novels. Unfortunately, Paul also likes a drink, a bit too much. He gets plastered to celebrate his success and winds up totalling his car. He’s pulled from the wreck by Annie Wilkes.

Ah, yes, Annie Wilkes – even if you’ve never read Misery or seen the movie adaptation, you’ve probably heard her name in hushed whispers as one of the most horrifying villains in fiction. She’s a former nurse with a healthy home-stash of medication “samples”, and she’s a big fan of Paul’s romance novels. She’s also very, very unhappy about his decision to kill off his protagonist in the final book.

So, here we have a severely-injured writer, “fortuitously” discovered by his number-one fan who’d do anything to have him continue writing. What’s a girl like Annie Wilkes to do… but take him hostage in her guest room, set his broken legs, get him hooked on painkillers, and plonk a typewriter down in front of him? That’s right, she forces him to write the story she feels Misery (the character for whom King’s novel gets its title) deserves.

When King first had the idea for the story of Misery, he envisaged a 30,000 word manuscript that he would call The Annie Wilkes Edition. In that parallel-universe version, Paul finishes the story Annie forces him to write, and Annie kills him, in order to bind that special, final book in his skin. Ultimately, though, he decided to go with a much longer version (four times as long) and a different ending (which I won’t spoil completely here, but…). When asked why the change, he said:

… it would have made a pretty good story (not such a good novel, however; no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him), but that wasn’t the way things eventually went. Paul Sheldon turned out to be a good deal more resourceful than I initially thought.

Stephen King (on Misery)

Misery moves a lot faster than the other Stephen King novel I’ve read (Under The Dome), but that’s not surprising really, given that it’s a third of the length and only has two central characters. Unfortunately, despite having a narrower focus, King really doesn’t flesh out his characters as fully as you’d hope. Maybe I’m jaded from reading too many more recent and more intricate thrillers, but everything in Misery just seemed a bit two-dimensional. Annie Wilkes had no depth, no complexity – she was like a cut-out of a “psychopath”. Paul Sheldon was a mess of convenient realisations and insights; by way of example, he kept having dreams that would point him in the right direction or “reveal” how he truly felt. The “shocking twists” were just small bumps in the road, overcome by Paul thinking really hard about them for a bit. It’s paint-by-numbers intro-to-Psychology “show, don’t tell” stuff, and I honestly expected more from King.

Maybe he was blinded by how deeply personal and autobiographical Misery was for him. It’s not just the emphasis he puts on the importance of dreams (he has said, IRL, that the character of Annie Wilkes came from a dream of his own). King’s personal struggles, and the at-times destructive passion he feels for books and writing, feel encoded into Misery‘s DNA. Firstly, you can see the way King sees his books (and himself, come to that) hinted at in the way he describes his main character:

He was Paul Sheldon, who wrote novels of two kinds, good ones and best-sellers.

Misery (Page 7)

But the larger, overwhelming metaphor is that of addiction. Misery is like King’s come-to-Jesus moment about his own addiction(s) manifest. Paul Sheldon becomes addicted to the painkillers that Annie Wilkes forces him to take, and his days come to revolve around her dispensing his medication, more than food, water, or his bedpan; even when he contemplates escape, he wonders and worries about cutting off his supply. So, you’ve got a murderous captor holding the writer hostage, getting him high and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do, until he almost loses himself completely – honestly, if Misery isn’t handed out at AA meetings, it should be. To his credit, King doesn’t deny the connection.

I wrote [Misery] when I was having such a tough time with dope. I knew what I was writing about. There was never any question. Annie was my drug problem, and she was my number-one fan. God, she never wanted to leave.

Stephen King (On Misery)

He stops short, however, of admitting that Paul is some kind of cathartic Mary Sue; he concedes that “certain parts of him are [me]”, but qualifies that “I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you”.

(Maybe he spoke too soon. In a strange twist of life imitating art, King himself was in a serious car crash similar to his character Paul Sheldon’s, in 1999. Luckily, no one took him hostage and forced him to write anything afterwards… as far as we know.)

After publication, Misery won the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Novel, and critical reception was generally positive, despite disgruntled voices from fans who resented King for steering away from his prior fiction’s supernatural/fantasy elements. Personally, I preferred the realism of Misery, but it still fell a bit short for me in other ways (see above). I might check out the movie adaptation at some point, just to see if the story translates better to the screen (though if they do any cheesy dream sequences, I may actually vomit). All told, Misery is a middle-of-the-road horror novel, made more interesting for its parallels to King’s personal life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Misery:

  • “I bought it as a present for myself and wasn’t disappointed. Reading Misery on New Year’s Eve was relaxing, soothing, and good. It was like my mind had a vacation on its own.” – Sofia Petrovna
  • “The book was really good I like misery” – bina shrestha
  • “I couldn’t even feel for Paul much. He seemed wimpy. After his legs healed from his accident, he could have escaped, but didn’t.

    King also had too many coincidences in his storyline. It’s enough to make your eyes roll.

    Instead of taking the axe to Paul’s leg, King should have did it to the book instead. This would have saved me the “misery” of reading it!” – MJ
  • “True misery is reading this novel. By the time he’d written this, King had succumbed to the “my every word is golden” delusion, so the thing is much larger than it needed to be. After reading this because I promised a friend I’d do it (oh, what we do for pretty women)I decided that even 180 pages would’ve been too long. The conclusion is unsatisfactory because some of the cast of characters survive.” – James K. Burk
  • “By the time I was halfway through I wanted one of them to die. It didn’t matter which one it was.” – Pharoah 12
  • “I order “misery” by Stephen King and received a diet book. Granted, both are thrillers but I was really looking forward to stimulating my imagination and I really don’t like losing weight” – enobong essien

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca is a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, who described it herself in a letter to her publisher as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. I went in knowing the “twist” ending, but still excited to read it, as I’d heard nothing but glowing recommendations from other readers whose tastes don’t deviate much from mine. So, I won’t be hiding any spoilers in this review (don’t @ me).

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The opening chapter frames the story to follow: an unnamed narrator living abroad, reflecting on the strange circumstances that led her to that point in her life. It begins with the immortal opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Aside from that, the most important thing you need to know at the outset is that the narrator is never named, not even in dialogue.

When the flashback starts, the narrator is a naïve young woman working as a paid companion, holidaying with her employer in sunny Monte Carlo. She’s so passionately extra, I couldn’t help but laugh at her – a mild scene of social awkwardness over coffee becomes a test of her ability “to endure the frequent agonies of youth”. She is the antithesis of a Cool Girl, she has no chill at all. She constantly imagines the worst – whole scenarios and conversations – and reacts emotionally as though it’s actually happened.

It’s masterful psychological profiling by du Maurier (and annoyingly relatable), but it also gets a bit tiring to read without respite. Consider this your heads-up that Rebecca is not a book to be read in a single sitting; space it out a bit in order to enjoy it properly.

When your girl meets the handsome and enigmatic English widower holidaying in the same hotel, Mr de Winter, she freaks out so hard I desperately wanted her to have a Valium and a lie down. He’s wealthy and wife-less and, against all odds, romantically interested in this nervous little creature who’s paid to fold another woman’s underpants. After a fortnight of courting her, he all but demands that she marry him, and – of course – she agrees.

Now, I get that Maxim de Winter is meant to be the bad guy (that much is abundantly obvious, even in the earliest chapters), but like Mr Rochester before him, I’m hot for it. He’s charming and funny (when it suits him), and there’s something undeniably charismatic about him (despite his tendency to bump off wives when they annoy him – told you there’d be spoilers!).

Anyway, after the wedding and honeymoon, the de Winters return to their grand estate in Cornwall, Manderley (the one from the dream, remember?). There, the narrator meets Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper who remains steadfastly devoted to the first Mrs de Winter (that’d be the titular character, Rebecca), despite her untimely death in a boating accident the year before. Mrs Danvers is a truly chilling villain, capable of gaslighting even the reader – the whole way through Rebecca, she retains just enough plausible deniability to make you really wonder whether her constant attempts to psychologically undermine the narrator are all in the girl’s silly head.

So, the narrator is thrown into the lavish world of Manderley that doesn’t seem ready to accept her, and she hates it, despite loving Maxim. That’s a very strong start to a novel. Unfortunately, the plot then drags a little. The narrator obsesses over Rebecca, her new friends and household staff are cagey when she asks them questions, on and on it goes for a hundred pages or so. You might be tempted to write Rebecca off at this point – but don’t! It’s worth it in the end, I promise.

Things heat back up again when the narrator convinces herself, finally, that Maxim is still in love with his dead wife and there’s nothing she can do to ever truly win his heart. Mrs Danvers catches her at this (in)opportune moment, and tries to convince the narrator to commit suicide (yikes). Just as the narrator is making up her mind to jump, the shout goes up: a ship has wrecked just off the shore!

Not just that, but the divers who went down to try and free the ship’s hull from the reef found something disturbing: Rebecca’s capsized boat, with a body inside. That means that Maxim “identified” the wrong body that washed ashore after Rebecca’s disappearance. Oops!

And then it all really comes crashing down. Maxim is backed into a corner, forcing him to confess to his lovely new wife that he actually killed Rebecca. According to him, she was a cruel and unfaithful wife who managed to charm everyone but him with her beautiful facade (yeah, but mate, you would say that, wouldn’t you?). When she intimated to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he shot her – as you do…?

Almost unbelievably, the narrator accepts all of this without question. The prevailing opinion in the room is “Yeah! Rebecca! What a bitch!”. She doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation in helping Maxim cover up his crime. I can only surmise she was so willing to accept her murderous husband’s version of events because it conveniently and completely allayed every fear she’d had about his true allegiance and affections.

An inquest into the discovery of Rebecca’s (actual) body ends with a verdict of suicide. That’s when Jack Favell shows up and starts making trouble. He was Rebecca’s first cousin and lover, and he tries to blackmail Maxim, claiming to have “proof” that Rebecca would not have taken her own life – in the form of a note she sent to him the night that she died, asking him to come meet her.

NOW, this is where I will poke one important hole in an otherwise-fantastic story climax: why did no one consider Favell a suspect in Rebecca’s murder? Here’s this bloke who’s constantly drunk and highly emotional, who was having an affair with a married woman. He shows up with a note from her that shows they were to meet on the evening she died, a note that he failed to turn over to authorities for over a year… I mean, obviously he didn’t do it, but I kept waiting for SOMEONE to say “Mate, you look suspicious AF!”. No one did, though.

Anyway, I’ll try to speed through to the end here: it turns out that Rebecca wasn’t pregnant, but she was terminally ill, and Maxim manages to blame that on her too (“oh, she must have WANTED me to kill her, to save her a painful death, what a bitch!”). He escapes any trouble with the law, BUT the de Winters still have a karmic price to pay for his crime. Mrs Danvers burns the whole damn house down, and effectively forces them into exile.

Seriously, that final scene, that final page with the flames blazing on the horizon, it’s like a bomb going off. It stops abruptly, and leaves your ears ringing and your knees shaking. A chef’s-kiss A+ ending to Rebecca.

My edition includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, written in 2002. According to Beauman: “The plot of Rebecca may be as unlikely as the plot of a fairytale, but that does not alter the novel’s mythic resonance and psychological truth,” (page 437). No one really saw that at the time of publication. Reviewers called Rebecca “nothing beyond the novelette”, a book that “would be here today and gone tomorrow” – a far cry from the dissection of power and gender roles that du Maurier was getting at.

But, time told, after all; Rebecca has never been out of print. It is perennially popular, and has been adapted a bunch of times for both stage and screen (most recently, the 2020 remake for Netflix). I think it’s enduring appeal is due to the fact that it’s a deeply multi-layered literary novel, disguised as romantic fiction. You come for the spooky Gothic love story, but you stay for the evergreen interrogation of women’s subservience to (and subversion of) the rule of men. I’m pleased to report that, one or two quibbles aside, Rebecca lived up to all of its recommendations – and then some.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Rebecca:

  • “I forced myself to slog through this “classic” of gothic fiction and what a waste of time it was. 300 of the overwrought (and very DATED) 400 pages are mind-numbingly boring descriptions of Downton Abbey style tea parties, and the “story,” such as it was, all transpired in the last 80 pages, which themselves could have been edited down to 30.” – White Rabbit
  • “It was a slow and mildly interesting book.” – MRS M SWART
  • “Hated this story..too gloomy” – Sheryl Walsh
  • ” One of the most boring books I have ever read. This frequently makes ‘scariest books’ lists and the only thing scary about it is the narrator’s mother.” – K. P. Klima
  • “This book is, without question, the most boring peace of literature ever written. It makes the technical manual to my VCR look like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In fact, it’s so boring that I recommend a new synonym for boring, “Rebecca”. The book is about people who have disgustingly unbelievable personalities, who do really boring things, and make up mysteries about killing people that aren’t even in the story, then insist on telling you about it. The main character/narrator is the most overly emotional and sappy person in all of fiction, and could never ever be a real person, even in the 1920s when this book takes place. She insists on telling you about all of her problems, and how she can never “feel right” at Manderly, even though no sane person could EVER care. It’s enough to make you sick. The story really wasn’t that bad but it could have easily been told in about 1/10 of the amount of time. It’s like Dickens description without everything that makes Dickens good. Even after the thousands of atrocities committed by Hitler, I still consider him to be a great man, for burning THIS book. It’s that bad.” – person
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