Philip Ashley's older cousin Ambrose, who raised the orphaned Philip as his own son, has died in Rome. Philip, the heir to Ambrose's beautiful English estate, is crushed that the man he loved died far from home. He is also suspicious. While in Italy, Ambrose fell in love with Rachel, a beautiful English and Italian woman. But the final, brief letters Ambrose wrote hint that his love had turned to paranoia and fear. Now Rachel has arrived at Philip's newly inherited estate. Could this exquisite woman, who seems to genuinely share Philip's grief at Ambrose's death, really be as cruel as Philip imagined? Or is she the kind, passionate woman with whom Ambrose fell in love? Philip struggles to answer this question, knowing Ambrose's estate, and his own future, will be destroyed if his answer is wrong.
Orphaned at a mere 18 months of age, Phillip Ashley is taken in and raised by his much older cousin, Ambrose. Over the years, Ambrose grooms young Phillip to one day take over as heir to Ambrose's Cornish estate. Then the time come when Ambrose embarks on one of his frequent trips to Florence (where he spends the winters so as not to aggravate his health problems). This year though, Ambrose writes to Phillip to say he has become quite enamored by a woman by the name of Rachel, a distant cousin. The letters continue to come, illustrating the rapid development of the relationship. Before long Ambrose sends word that he and Rachel have married.
Ambrose extends his stay in Florence, renting a home there. Ten months away from England, his letters turn from that of a blissed out newlywed to being saturated in melancholy. The letters get alarmingly more frantic, showing a mental breakdown. A year and a half passes and Ambrose's letters begin arriving in near illegible script and a distinctly paranoid tone. Then one last cryptic letter comes urging Phillip to come quick to Italy, writing "she watches me... Rachel, my torment." Unfortunately, Ambrose dies before Phillip's arrival, so explanations regarding Ambrose's state of mind at the end remain elusive.
Phillip returns to England to take up his position as the new heir to Ambrose's estate. Shortly after settling into this new role, he gets word that Ambrose's widow is due to arrive any minute and wishes to spend some time on the land that meant so much to her husband.
The novel is narrated by Phillip. Through him, we get a first hand account of his initial impressions of Rachel, even how he imagined her from Ambrose's letters. He gives her a pretty hilarious ripping (describing what he imagines pre-introduction) but in person he finds her quite beautiful and beguiling. Still, he can't entirely shake suspicions that she may have had something to do with Ambrose's unexpected passing. They have a bit of a rocky start, but later Phillip chocks it up (at least in part) to Rachel having difficulty with his physical likeness to Ambrose.
Also in the mix is Phillip's longtime friend, Louise --- honestly, my favorite character in the whole story. Her quietly slipped in snark! When Rachel first arrives, Louise later remarks, "Mourning certainly does not appear drab on her." Reading that brought to my mind the scene in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind when Scarlett goes to that first dance / social event after being widowed. But it irked me how annoying and almost bratty Phillip was around Louise. His poor behavior left me feeling like he certainly didn't deserve a friend of Louise's caliber.
A historical note in the edition I read from mentioned that du Maurier may have based Cousin Rachel off of Ellen Doubleday (wife of Nelson Doubleday of Doubleday Publishing), whom it was speculated Daphne had "confused" (as the historical note worded it) feelings for. Going into a du Maurier novel, it's often a given to expect a certain level of mystery to the plot. With this one, there were bits of mystery / intrigue here and there, but overall I didn't find as much suspense as I would normally expect from her work. Rachel was painted a bit like a Borgia in the beginning, but the element of suspense fizzed out a bit as the story progresses. While Rachel is undoubtedly an intriguing character, du Maurier doesn't quite land the full punch in terms of the character's level of sly dastardly-ness.
But true to her reputation, even here du Maurier does leave questions for the reader to work out. Was there a deeper motive behind the birthday plan? I was perplexed by Phillip's decision!
Even so, I appreciated the subtle wit sprinkled throughout passages of dialogue. It's what held my interest during the bits where not much else was going on!
So how does the recent film adaptation hold up? Honestly, I preferred the film! One of the troubles I had with the book is the feeling that sense that du Maurier was not sufficiently answering all the questions or conflicts she posed in the book. But the film expands on what du Maurier offers and gives readers some nice closure on some of those topics, particularly with the film's ending. Some scenes in the film were so beautifully shot they reminded me of Impressionist paintings... it was hard not to be instantly captivated!
Some changes that caught my attention though:
* The whole scene Rachel has in front of the Arno River seems to be cut from the film. The thoughts she had in that book scene, in the film she speaks them to Rinaildi.
* Rachel Weisz, cast as Cousin Rachel, plays the conversation regarding Italian lessons in a rather weepy tone, which threw me. The way the scene is laid out in the book, I imagined the lines delivered with much more of a dark humor with a side of steely glint in the eye vibe.... but the 2nd fight later on was shot just about how I pictured it!
* The candles! So many candles SO close to canopy bed drapes! Made me wonder about fires on set lol
* It might just be me on this one, but I felt like some scenes had some odd close-ups, strange angle choices, and sometimes even just straight up out of focus.
Overall, the film adaptation is pretty faithful to the book. A good chunk of the dialogue in the film is actually pulled verbatim from the book text. Not surprisingly though, the film does blaze through a number of plot points in the interest of time. One of the major reveals near the novel's end actually shows up smack in the middle of the film!
I would definitely recommend reading the book first to experience all these little nuances yourself, but either way there's a pretty good story to be had here... the film brings out what the book dropped off! But as Roger Michell, the film's director, put it: "Of course, the best version of all, perfectly cast, impeccably lit and designed, with the greatest soundscape, most dizzying score, infinite budget and cast of thousands, will always be the one projected into the keen reader's imagination as she or he turns the pages that follow."