Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, part Gothic romance and part psychological thriller, is set in Cornwall in the nineteenth century. The narrator is Phillip Ashley. Orphaned as a child, Phillip was raised by his cousin, the wealthy landowner, Ambrose Ashley. Ambrose, confirmed bachelor that he was, distrusted women so much that his household staff was made up completely of men. The only young woman in Phillip's life is Louise, the daughter of Phillip's godfather, Nick Kendall.

Ambrose spends part of his year in Italy due to health problems to escape the dampness of the Cornwall winter while Phillip runs the estate in his absence. Phillip doesn't hear from Ambrose for a long time. When he finally receives a letter, he learns that Ambrose has married Rachel, a distant cousin, whom Ambrose met in Florence.

The couple has no plans to return to Cornwall, and Phillip feels that something is amiss. His fears are confirmed when a letter from Ambrose arrives revealing that Ambrose thinks Rachel is trying to kill him. Phillip mentions this to Nick Kendall who considers the possibility that Ambrose has suffered from a breakdown or from the same kind of brain tumor that killed Ambrose's father.

After imagining the worst and building up a great amount of hatred and resentment for Rachel, Phillip goes to Italy and finds that Ambrose has died. Rachel is not there, but Phillip meets the manager of Rachel's money and her advisor, Rainaldi. Phillip recognizes the name from one of Ambrose's letters as someone who cannot be trusted. It is later in the story that Phillip learns that a doctor of Rainaldi's issued the death certificate stating that Ambrose died of a brain tumor.

Rachel appears in Cornwall at the estate and stays long enough to be considered in charge of the house. She charms the staff as well as the people of the village. At first wary of Rachel, in time, Phillip's hatred of Rachel changes to something else entirely. Conveniently for Rachel, Phillip's feelings change around the time he comes of age to inherit the estate. Since Ambrose did not change the will when he married Rachel, she has been left with nothing, and Phillip wants to provide an allowance for her and more. What unfolds next in the story is obsession, perhaps madness and perhaps murder.

I liked Phillip in the beginning of the story and wanted to believe him, but something happens to show that he is an unreliable narrator. Because of this, I found myself asking all kinds of questions. Was Rachel guilty of murdering Ambrose, or did he really have a brain tumor? Was Rachel trying to poison Phillip as well? Is Phillip telling the story from prison? Was Rachel the lovely person the staff and people of the village found her to be, or was she a conniving murderess only after Phillip's inheritance?

While I didn't love this book as much as Rebecca, reading My Cousin Rachel proved to me once more how effective du Maurier was at weaving a story with atmosphere and danger that can keep the reader guessing. This was one of those books I had to keep reading even though it felt a bit frustrating not to have all my questions answered. 

Even with my questions about My Cousin Rachel, I still recommend the book. The novel was originally published in 1951; I read the Virago reprint edition from 2011.

Have you read My Cousin Rachel? What are your thoughts?


  1. My Cousin Rachel is on my fall reading list, but I haven't gotten to it yet. Your review makes me want to start it sooner rather than later. Rebecca is the only DuMaurier novel I've read so far.

    1. I've read some of du Maurier's later work, but nothing has really compared to Rebecca. I'll look forward to hearing what you think about My Cousin Rachel. I have lots more to say about the book! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Loved Rebecca and I do need to try this one as well (I own a copy).

    1. I loved Rebecca as well, and maybe that's why it took me so long to get around to reading My Cousin Rachel. Thanks for your comment!