Phillip Ashley has only ever known a semblance of filial attachment from being taken under his older cousin’s wing. So when Ambrose gets married to a stranger he met in Florence, Phillip can’t help but detest Rachel for coming between them.
Soon, he begins receiving letters from Ambrose that indicate their marriage is in trouble. And before Phillip has the chance to meet him, he dies. Determined to unearth the truth from Rachel, he invites her to their estate.
The novel opens on a dark note, setting the tone for what’s to be Phillips skewed perception of life and death. Daphne du Maurier approaches this story with no qualms about making her characters unappealing to the reader.
On the one hand, you have an impulsive (almost bratty) male protagonist, who pays little heed to the consequences of his actions; on the other, there’s the female lead, whose true nature remains as elusive as the mystery surrounding Ambrose’s illness.
For me, it is this very aspect of the book that kept me engrossed throughout. I have come to enjoy reading stories about characters who are morally grey in their own right and don’t feel pressured to keep up appearances.
Sure, you’ll occasionally want to knock some sense into Phillip. But it’s interesting to observe how his actions and predicament stem from the lack of a parent figure in his life and the ability to develop a strong emotional intelligence.
Maurier’s writing is indicative of the biases that govern norms and beliefs in society. I love how clever the author has been in her use of stereotypes to challenge the flawed logic that these notions are based on.
For instance, the Ashleys and most of the staff in their household don’t have high regard for women. Their tendency to label the other sex paints them in a poor light, even weakening their character when, having made the acquaintance of Rachel, their thoughts suddenly take a 180-degree turn.
The pace of the novel is relatively on the slower side, and I liked it that way. The gothic undertones and setting made the novel all the more intriguing.
Considering that the story is told from Phillip’s POV, and he isn’t the most reliable character, I was never really sure what the ending would look like.
If the intensity of his feelings had been any different or if Rachel’s characterization had been less mysterious, I probably would not have been satisfied with the way the novel ends. That said, this is definitely one of the more memorable conclusions amongst others in the author’s works.
On the whole, there’s a lot that’s ambiguous about My Cousin Rachel. You will be left with some unanswered questions, but that’s the beauty of Daphne du Maurier’s writing – in life and in literature, there are more blind spots than you realize.