For its first two selections, my book club chose two very different suspense novels: Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, and The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins.
I read Rebecca many years ago and loved it, but I’m glad I forgot details about the plot so I could enjoy the mysteries of this wonderful novel again.
It’s the story of a young woman (who remains nameless throughout the book) who meets and marries a dashing but mysterious older man named Maxim de Winter, and goes to live with him in his ancestral home, Manderley, a gothic-looking mansion by the sea circa 1930’s England. Despite an idyllic honeymoon in Italy, the marriage takes a darker turn once back at Manderley. The beautiful house is haunted, not by an actual ghost, but by the memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, who had drowned in the sea while sailing her boat the previous year.
The dread begins with the creepy and cruel Mrs. Danvers, who had doted upon Rebecca, and makes it abundantly clear the new Mrs. de Winter is not welcome. It continues with others’ reluctance to speak of Rebecca, and most distressingly, Maxim’s increasing coldness and secretiveness towards his new young wife. Our heroine finally concludes that Maxim doesn’t really love her, and only married her to try to forget his glamorous first wife, the indomitable Rebecca.
But the reader is aware that all is not what it seems, for the novel begins with Maxim and the heroine in later years, happy and in love, living abroad–but not in Manderley. The famous first line of the book, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” alerts us that something happened there that drove them away. The mystery of the novel is, what happened, and what was the real nature of Rebecca’s death? The story slowly draws us in with rich language and characterization, the mystery deepening with every page.
The Girl on the Train is a thriller of modern techniques, grabbing us immediately and not letting go until we’ve devoured the entire book in a few blurry-eyed days. It begins with the unreliable narrator Rachel, who we meet as she commutes to London on a passenger train.
In those first few pages we find out that Rachel is an alcoholic prone to blackouts, and that her marriage ended the previous year. Everyday on the train she passes the house she’d shared with her husband, now occupied by her ex-husband Tom and his new wife, Anna. She also passes a house not far down the street occupied by another couple, who she dubs Jason and Jessica. She makes up a whole life for this couple, a fulfilling relationship, the happily ever after that her marriage clearly was not.
But then one day, as she passes by in the train, she sees Jessica kiss another man. And not long after that, Jessica, whose real name is Meghan, goes missing. On that very same night, something happens to Rachel, as she wakes up the next morning with a bump and cuts on her head, but no memory of what happened due to an alcohol-infused blackout.
What happened to Meghan, and who is responsible? The lover? The husband? Rachel herself? The story alternates between Rachel of the present, Meghan of the past year, and later, Anna. All of these people have secrets and sins, and the reader finds herself relentlessly turning the pages to find out the truth, buried beneath layers of lies, deception, and repressed memories. The only good thing about my recent illness is that I was able to dive into this mystery and stay there for a while as I recuperated, carving out large chunks of the book very quickly.
I loved both of these books, although reading each one brings a very different experience. One is slow and insidious; the other is fast-paced and shocking. I read very few thrillers and mysteries, but based on these two superlative examples, I think it’s time I read more.
What about you? Have you read these entertaining books? What’s your favorite thriller or mystery? Leave a comment and we’ll talk about it!