I was discussing books with one of my friends. She doesn’t read much romance, but she likes urban fantasy and the occasional swashbuckling historical when she can find it. At one point, though, she told me that, “My favorite romance is probably Rebecca…” And that stuck with me. I also really like this book, but romance? Not really. Great classic that I think more people should read, most certainly. But still not a romance.
I love gothics, and the air of menace and mystery in this one is hard to beat. The opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” is seared into my head. I know the story well, and I still enjoy rereading it from time to time. The book has an intoxicating dreamlike atmosphere to it that I find difficult to resist. Still, while the main characters are a couple, it is hard to see their marriage as a romance.
Those who know the book will recall that Maxim de Winter and his younger second wife, who had formerly worked as a paid companion. Maxim and the new wife return to his home, Manderley. The new wife knows Maxim was a widower and that his beautiful first wife, Rebecca, died in a tragic accident. Maxim’s tragedies sound like they are in the past, but that will prove not to be so when the de Winters reach Manderley and take up residence with the formidable Mrs. Danvers and the memories of Rebecca.
What unfolds is a brilliant mystery and a deeply atmospheric story, but it’s hard to see the love between Maxim and the new wife. After all, Wife #2 doesn’t even get a name. How much more insignificance can one heap upon a person than simply not acknowledging that she even has a name? Not much detail is given about Wife #2, but what little is there makes her seem timid and mousy, ill at ease whereever she goes. One would feel sorry for her rather than be struck with admiration. In addition, one never reads of her hopes, her dreams, what she believes about the world – she instead lives essentially to be Maxim’s wife. And what a rigid world Maxim creates. There are times in the book when I wonder if Maxim is married to Wife #2 or if he somehow thinks he hired a servant instead.
One of the early chapters of the book sets the scene for Wife #2’s life after the dramatic events detailed later in the novel. She and Maxim lead a very retiring life in exile, which she claims as a good thing. They have a routine they follow, and carefully skirt any conversation topics that might remind them of bad memories. It’s a chapter that is skillfully written, and one can almost feel oneself smothering while reading it. But, romantic? No way. Maxim certainly sounds haunted, but Wife #2 seems stifled and rather pitiful. These two may stick together, but romantic feeling does not seem to be the glue that holds them together.
No – timid women living under the thumb of their powerful husbands and haunted by the memories of said husband’s dead first wife do not give one that good feeling that a real HEA would. And I can’t say I find the stultifying exile of the de Winters particularly romantic or satisfying. It makes for a great dark gothic thriller, but I can’t say I find it that romantic. And then there’s Maxim’s first marriage – but I’ll leave you to discover THAT for yourselves, if you haven’t already.
What about you? What “romance” books out there strike you as having been deeply misclassified?