“Last night, Rebekah tried to murder me again,” begins Lisa Gabriele’s modernized retelling of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. It’s not quite as catchy as “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” but then, what could be?
In Gabriele’s version of the classic story, the main plot thread is the same – our lower-class and nameless heroine falls in love with a fabulously rich man, marries him, becomes the second wife… and realizes that the two-years-gone Rebekah Winter isn’t quite dead in the minds and memories of those who worshipped her. There are some major plot differences, and changed names as we go through the storyline; the magnificent, stately house is named Asherley, Maxim de Winter is Senator Max Winter, and Mrs. Danvers is Dani, Rebekah and Max’s popular, wise-beyond-her-years, daddy-obsessed fifteen-year-old daughter.
Our narrator comes from the working class. Her parents strove to survive hand to mouth on fishing trawlers in George Town, Grand Cayman Islands, and watching the rich tourists who flock there indulging in all sorts of luxuries has given her a thirst for a taste of the good life. After her mother passes of cancer, and arthritis forces her father to leave behind a life of independence for a softer life of work in a charter boat company, our narrator learns the trade, and ends up taking her father’s place guiding boat tours for the rich. On such a trip she meets politician Max, is swept off her feet into high society, and the old money of the Winters’ world. Just as nameless as the original book’s narrator, she wonders how she can possibly compete with the icy blonde larger-than-life perfection of Rebekah. When her boss threatens to send her elsewhere to deal with a non-Max related publicity scandal, Max chooses to propose to the narrator and bring her home to Asherley – without introducing his daughter to her face-to-face.
At the semi-isolated, ancient, wintery Hamptons-area estate, Dani and the narrator finally meet in person – and the rebellious teenager immediately loathes her stepmother. Dani isn’t her only problem however; the boat-loving narrator is confronted by Rebekah’s stable of horses, her picture everywhere, the twisty road where she died and her possessions still in existence about the house. Rooms that were once Rebekah’s domain are forbidden to her. Dani seems to be spying on her, Max doesn’t want her digging into the past – and someone seems to want something terrible to happen to her – but what will our stubborn narrator discover when she goes poking into the events of the night Rebekah died?
Call this ‘Danielle Steel’s Rebecca’; mixing glossy points of view on Hamptons life, pulpy melodrama, classic thriller elements, lots of thoughts about mother-child bonds and a smattering of the original novel, The Winters reminds me of drugstore perfume – cheerfully plain but also memorably strong.
Our heroine is, at least, definitely nothing like the narrator of the first book; she’s more of a presence with more of a past. But she does remain a mouse, easily manipulated by those around her for too long. So much time might have been saved had she been more direct! Max, much like the Maxim of Du Maurier’s novel, is something of a cipher, only seen through the lens of his feelings for Rebecca/Rebekah and for the narrator, until some dark truths finally emerge at the end of the novel. Dani is a believable tormented brat, and the novel’s best character.
The relationship between Max and our heroine is sweet, but there is an age, class and experience gap between them, and much time is wasted with his oblique statements and frustrated gestures – the better to build up to the double-twist ending that awaits the reader.
The best and most interesting part of the novel is the psychological element – the struggle between Rebekah and our narrator – which is really a struggle between our narrator and her humongous inferiority complex, which she must shed to become an actualized woman.
While the mystery part of things is certainly unpredictable, the dry nature of the characters and romance are the book’s true downfalls. There are also some unnecessary moments of violence and animal death – specifically animal murder. But The Winters does manage to differentiate itself from its progenitor, which is a special achievement, warts and all.
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