Thursday, July 13, 2017

In Praise of Daphne du Maurier

From The New York Times:
Why do we love du Maurier so? There’s an element of nostalgia, to be sure, for the books we read when we were young and impatient not to be. Her novels, in particular, reify adulthood. Youth is treated as an embarrassing if unavoidable affliction, thankfully temporary.

There is the pleasure of her plots, those marvelously efficient machines. Like Wilkie Collins before her and Sarah Waters today, du Maurier had a preternatural understanding of how to engineer suspense; she knew how to make you wait and want and when to deliver the final blow. “The Birds,” her short story that was the basis for the Hitchcock film, is such a perfect piece of narrative tension, it feels less written than administered; it acts upon you with unerring, hypodermic efficiency.

But plot alone can’t explain why we return to “Rebecca,” which even its most fervent fans will admit is cribbed from “Jane Eyre” (mousy heroine, aloof love interest, his inconvenient first wife, a very convenient fire). It is the charismatic, ruthless Rebecca herself — the vanished first wife, with her beautiful face and boyish body — who obsesses the narrator, and the reader. It’s Rachel from “My Cousin Rachel” and Nurse Ansel from “The Blue Lenses”: alluring, confounding characters, impossible to classify as victims, saviors or executioners. They are riddles and remain so, but how precisely they are observed.

Few writers have watched and captured women with such conspicuous pleasure as du Maurier — the way they walk and wear coats and unscrew their earrings. The way they pin up their hair and stub out their cigarettes; the way they call to their dogs, break horses, comfort children, deceive their husbands and coax plants from flinty soil. Few writers (Elena Ferrante comes to mind) have been so aware of how women excite one another’s imaginations. (Read more.)

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