Back to the Classics with Rachel

A few years ago, a friend shared with me his Classics Challenge The idea was to read books written no fewer than 50 years ago in select categories, which he assigned as the year progressed. I was very diligent the first couple of years but, I have to admit that I wavered a bit lately. Not sure where I am on the 2017 Assignments, Ron, but I’m back with Gothic Fiction/British Fiction/Woman Writer/Suspense/Classic Made Into A Movie.

Is that a category?

rachelI have wanted to read Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel for some time. Not sure why I haven’t pulled it off the shelf before now. I adored Rebecca and have read it multiple times. Frenchman’s Creek intrigued me and I also liked both Mary Anne and Jamaica Inn. But when I saw this title in New Releases, I was confused … I quickly discovered it was the new movie release edition, featuring none other than Rachel Weisz of The Mummy and Runaway Train fame on the cover. (For those of you purests, the 1952 film starred Olivia de Haviland.) Now that I’ve finished the book, I have the new movie on my to watch list.

I adore gothic fiction with its eerie shadows, candlelight and hints of subtle machinations just out of my line of sight. As a teen, I read Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt with abandon. So, this novel had my name written all over it.

The plot is told in first person by 24-year old Phillip Ashley and is exceptionally well-crafted. You glimpse where it is going, but instead of a straight paved path to the denoument, you have one set in Cornwall in an undefined year with dirt laden roads and carriages, exotic plant life and the sound of the surf pounding against rock. At least, that’s the imagery that I imagined.

Like Girl On A Train, the story is told by an unreliable narrator. Phillip is naive and has led a sheltered life, raised by his much older cousin after both of his parents are tragically killed. No, we never learn what happened to them. But, when the tale begins, seven year old Phillip and cousin Ambrose (age 27) have just gone to see a hanged man. The tale trapped me right there.

So begins a gothic Daphne du Maurier tale. Her books are resplendent with vivid imagery and description. Every word selected with the intent to ensnare you and leave you questioning your senses. She was meticulous with this creation.

Phillip and Ambrose have lead a very solitary bachelor life somewhere in Cornwall sometime in the 19th Century. The author admits to choosing to be purposefully vague with time and location. Ambrose apparently has some health issues so he travels in the colder season. And during one of his trips abroad goest to Italy, meets a distant cousin of his, Cousin Rachel.

It is clear quickly that Ambrose is fascinated and drawn to Rachel. His letters to Phillip become less frequent. And Phillip, like a petulant child, takes great dislike to this interloper. As you can probably surmise, Ambrose eventually marries Rachel. Then, begins the intrigue. Ambrose falls ill, hinting in a hastily penned letters to Phillip that perhaps something is rotten in the state of Denmark … er … Italy. Phillip races to his aid only to find he is too late. Ambrose is dead. Rachel has shut up the villa and disappeared, and his only access to information is a seemingly sinister “lawyer-type” named Rainaldi, to whom Phillip takes an immediate dislike.

Now, strangely, Phillip and Ambrose — though cousins — bear a strong resemblance to each other. Just keep that in mind as the plot grows gothic-er.

Of course, Cousin Rachel asks permission to come visit Phillip, who is determined to hate her and malign her face to face. Encouraged by his childhood friend — the very wise Louise who is the voice of reason throughout the novel — he prepares to call her out. But, upon meeting her in a chilling scene set in her “boudoir” where it is uncertain if Cousin Rachel sees his face or the shadow of her former husband, Phillip immediately finds himself attracted to this woman … an attraction that turns rapidly from infatuation to possessiveness and jealousy.

Rachel charms everyone on the estate … everyone but Louise who glimpses something more sinister in her. But, she’s the only one. Now, I’m not one to malign a woman. Women are too quick to turn on each other. And Phillip’s obsession and possessive tone make it impossible to define beyond reasonable doubt of Cousin Rachel’s true motives. Is the atraction mutual? Is it genuine? Is there something spinning behind her brown eyes, her lace veil and well-tailored mourning attire? Hard to truly say for certain. But, less I give too much away, there is an inheritence, which dear cousin Ambrose neglected to provide to his wife. And Rachel captivates everyone like a clever spider weaving a web.

“But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness.”

Cousin Rachel is fascinatingly crafted. Even Daphne du Maurier admitted her attraction and confusion regarding this chimera of a character. Is she wicked? Is she simply doing the best she can to survive in a male dominated world? Is she manipulating everyone? Does she genuinely care for Phillip? Was there a murder in Italy? Is Phillip sucker-punched or does he see love and intrigue where there is none? These are questions I leave to the reader to determine an answer to based on their own reading of the tale.

My Cousin Rachel will draw you into its suspenseful, darkly woven pages. Unlike Jamaica Inn, it is not overdone. At least I don’t see it that way. And, as I type with the movie soundtrack playing over my phone, I find myself very satisfied with the book. Oh, Phillip’s whining and self-centered outlook wore on me while Louise’s words ring with wisdom beyond her young years. But, these differing views served to blend the lines between what was real and what he thought was real.

“There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster. Whatever they touch, somehow turns to tragedy.”

But is any of the Tragedy Cousin Rachel’s doing … or does it occur in the mind of a spoiled, self-centered man who knows little about women with exception of their role in fulfilling his own whims and meeting his personal desires? Ah, therein lies the rub.

I happen to like characters like Rachel — women who refuse to be defined or dominated, who turn occurrences to serve them or their needs. Women who know how to work a room. Women who are clever, playing life like a chessboard. Women who leave you wondering exactly what they want and who they truly are. Like du Maurier, Ambrose and Phillip, I fell for her charms. But, like Louise Kendall, I watched fascinated as her actions played out with artful finesse.

And that is why My Cousin Rachel remains a classic tale that will leave you riveted and wondering until that final sentence and perhaps even afterward.

– Jenni




the not knowing.

A friend and I have a favorite bar. When we go out on a girls night, it’s our go-to spot. Truffle fries to die for. Planned to met there for drinks last week. Googled to check specials. The site read: Location Permanently Closed.  Huh???

Watched a sequel to a mini-series I’d enjoyed. Discovered the majority of leading roles had been recast. Spent most of the premiere episode on-line trying to figure out what the hell happened to the original cast. No answer to be found.

I hate that. Not change. That’s expected. It’s the not knowing that gets to me. The unexplained closing. The recasting of roles. The friend who fades from my life with little more than a text. The silence from people, apparently offended or upset but perhaps just busy, without knowing what I did or could do to salvage or strengthen the relationship. The emails or requests that go unanswered. The messages left with no returned call.

I’m a curious sort, I’ll admit. And a Type A — okay AAA — organizer. I like things tidy.  I follow-up with thank you notes. I save photos and memorabilia. I keep connected to the people I care for. I even write letters, stamping them with a 49.5 cent stamp and sending them out in the mail. I enjoy closure when a project is finished and ticking off tasks when it is in process. I don’t leave anything hanging …

I did poorly in my Chem class in high school because the experiments didn’t do what they were supposed to do. I ended up with 102% error — which is highly unlikely but I did it anyway — and my Chem teacher Todd Bennethum just shook his head at my results. Even he was stymied. Why? No one could tell me. Gotta say, I didn’t love that class.

We all form expectations, relying on a logical flow. We press a button, the TV turns on. We log into an app, certain info pops onto our screens. We nurture our kids, we anticipate love, listening and respect in return. We form a connection with special people, we expect kindness, caring and authenticity and we give it.  Oh, we run into problems with all of the above at times. But we keep Tech Support on speed dial and talk through things with people important to us.

I once read that to maintain a successful relationship, three things are key.

  • Unconditional Acceptance
  • Rose-Colored Glasses
  • Lowered Expectations

In other words, accepting the people and situations in our lives for who they are and what they offer without going all cray-cray. Looking at the people and seeing the best in them, not creating glaring issues or dwelling on flaws or slights (imagined or otherwise). And lowering our expectations and avoiding unattainable ideals to set up people and relationships for success.

Okay. Gotta be honest. When it comes to people, I do have expectations. But I keep them simple. Perhaps asking for kindness, communication, a call back, a timely (doesn’t have to be immediate) response to a text, invitation or message, a “touch” or face to face time every now and then is unrealistic and places too high a demand on them. Sorry.  I ask no less of myself! But … since I am that Type A — okay, AAA — person, perhaps it could be suggested that what seems simple, common courtesy to me is a demand to others.  But dammit, when I care, I care deeply and I want to spend time with the people who matter most. If they choose to be my friend, I’d expect nothing less. And if they need something from me, I hope they know I’m here for them as well. But, the not knowing when people drift away leaves me wondering what I did and if I could have done something differently.

I find myself reviewing conversations and moments. Did the words I said register the way I meant them? Did the letter I wrote make sense? Did something I do offend? Did I misunderstand something? And, did all those times we spent together, sharing laughter and making memories resonate somewhere to remind my kids, my family, my friends and those who’ve chosen different paths that don’t include me that I cared … that I still do? Did they know how I felt? And, did I even matter to them?

And then there comes a time when you get an answer. And you know.

Last weekend, I attended the wedding of a very dear friend. She played my daughter on-stage twice and a piano student of mine another time. We had many stage moments and backstage fun. I watched her grow up to become a beautiful woman. We wrote letters. I sent her care packages and notes when she went to college. And we connect every now and then face to face.

I’m close to her whole family. Her sisters were also in shows with me and played very special roles in my life onstage and off.  And her parents were in those same shows, sharing fun and laughter, climbs up the mountain, post-show Labatt’s Blue Light, and even 6am tequilla shots after a really long cast party complete with the hair of the dog morning after walking tacos. Too many memories and times to list. They warm my heart whenever I think of them.

20604400_10155736400168746_5148786179390014193_n.jpgBut, many of those memories were made nearly 20 years ago. Time passes. You wonder if all those warm fuzzy thoughts that you found so significant were only special to you. And then, you are standing at a wedding reception watching the Father Daughter Dance when you recognize the music playing is a song from Music Man and that the voice singing is your own. This song plays for all to hear from a show you shared with the bride — her voice joining in for the final duet — and her dad once upon a footbridge. A song that connects you forever and reminds you they they love you and treasure those memories from River City, Iowa too. That you mattered and still matter. And you have your answer. Your heart grows two sizes in that moment. And all else fades away.

So I don’t know why The Pour House closed. Or why they recast The White Princess. I don’t know why my Chem experiments were riddled with errors or where that radio DJ I liked so much went.

I don’t know why some relationships get severed or fade out and others stay strong with minimal maintenance. Once in a while, you realize you did “touch” someone out there. It can happen at a wedding reception in a completely unexpected moment. Or, you reconnect with friends from Cooks Corners who message you on Facebook. You reminisce about times past with people not seen face to face for years. And then there’s that priceless moment when you find an answer to a question that’s been driving you crazy about handling and paying college invoices thanks to a little help …. ahhhhh! Bliss.

So that’s life, I guess. The not knowing why or how far your presence has seeped into the corners of another. The not knowing why you didn’t get the part or why you don’t get a reply or phone call from people you once thought of fondly. The not knowing why some friends move away yet still shine a true light reflecting a continued presence in your life while others you thought were strong sputter out in the non-nurtured darkness. The not knowing if all the lessons taught, adventures shared, trips to Barnes & Noble and outings with your kids — and the time spent talking and discovering together — ever resonated with them and or will guide and support them as they step out the door on their way to college.

The not knowing … I struggle with it. Not sure how to deal with it. Still figuring that out.

— Jenni