Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

1951 • 335 pages • Virago

This is my fourth du Maurier novel, and whilst not my favourite, My Cousin Rachel upholds the trademark gloomy atmosphere so familiar with her novels. The story follows Philip Ashley, a young bachelor who is heir to his cousin Ambrose's estate in Cornwall. Ambrose travels to Italy one winter to nurse his health and whilst staying in Florence meets Rachel, a widowed Countess, whom he marries. So far so good, right? Meanwhile, Philip is back in Blighty while all this is happening and learns everything through Ambrose's letters, which as time goes on become increasingly less frequent. Why? It turns out Ambrose is dying of the same ailment which killed his father, and after his death Rachel comes to Cornwall to pay her respects to dead husband's heir.

Now, already there's a sense of something going on here and Philip totally picks up on this vibe, instantly disliking Rachel before he has even met her. But as it turns out, Philip is putty in Rachel's little hands (she actually has really small hands and Philip has this strange fetish towards them which is kind of weird), and his dislike of her grows in to fascination, and ultimately, obsession. The first half, even the first two-thirds of the novel is pretty slow, admittedly. Not very much seems to happen and I think this is done purposely to throw emphasis on the psychological and emotional development of the characters. Kudos to du Maurier because this novel is all about the suspense, yet unlike Rebecca or Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel for me lacked that ultimate 'shocker' moment.

The question behind Rachel's motives is left out in the open. The suspense never explodes despite the build-up. If anything, it gradually diffuses up until the final scene, leaving The Big Question deliberately ambiguous. Maybe it's needy of me to say I wanted to know, absolutely, the truth behind Rachel's character but in this case, I did. There was just too much doubt and uncertainty for me to make my mind up on my own.

The whole story felt like it had an oppressive weight looming over it much to the point where it was like I was reading a black and white film noir. I don't see this as a bad thing; I actually think it does justice to the power of du Maurier's writing. Yet there were times, more often than not, where I found Philip to be both annoying and downright stupid. He is constantly compared to behaving like a child, even in his own first-person narration. I can see where his frustration vents from his own confusion and emotional turmoil, but he's so blindly love sick that it made me want to smack him upside the head.

As for Rachel, even now I'm not sure what to make of her. Did I like her? She's got too much hiding beneath the surface for me to definitely say. I didn't completely dislike her, but there's a complexity about her which made me what to scream for Philip to run like the wind. That being said, her mysterious presence is very du Maurier-esque and for any fellow fans of du Maurier then you should give this a go. Sadly, I was left kicking myself that I didn't like this more.

Overall rating: 3 stars


Thursday, 8 October 2015

Review: The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre

Date Finished: 5/10/2015
1997 • 432 Pages • Rating: ★★

Set in the decadent French court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, a period in history I'm particularly interested in, The Moon and the Sun felt like a novel I should have really liked. However as indicated by the two-star rating, this just didn't make the cut.

The premise of The Moon and the Sun is not your standard historical fiction novel as it's blended with elements of science fiction. The story follows Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, a young woman fresh out of the convent who has come to court as an attendant in the household of the Duke of Orleans, the King's brother. Her brother Yves is a natural philosopher and a new favourite of the King since - and this is where the sci-fi kicks in - he has just returned from a voyage in which he has brought back with him a sea monster/mermaid whose flesh possesses the ability to grant immortality. Louis XIV gets totally hooked on this idea and plans to cook and eat the mermaid (it's referred to as a sea creature in the novel, but I'm going to carry on calling it a mermaid because that's essentially what it is) once Yves has finished with his research.This plan becomes not so straight forward after Marie-Josèphe is put in charge of taking care of the mermaid, and comes to realise that it is more human than she initially believed.

In a nut shell, that is the novel. Granted it does exactly what it says on the tin, no beating around the bush, but the fact is I just didn't care for the story. There were a few little twists and revelations concerning the truth about certain characters gene pools, but they were mentioned pretty whimsically without adding any depth to the plot, as though they were just thrown in last minute.  As a central character, Marie-Josèphe is at times painfully irritating. As far as intellect goes she's a pretty smart cookie. She studies maths, composes music, expresses an interest in the works of Isaac Newton, all in addition to her somehow possessing the ability to communicate with the mermaid. How? It's never really explained; she just kind of wakes up one morning and is able to translate and understand everything the mermaid says.

I guess I should be happy that the novel focuses on a smart female character during a period where women's education was limited to learning how to draw and play the piano (which, by the way, Marie-Josèphe can also do). Maybe I would be if Marie-Josèphe was a likeable character, but her intelligence is outweighed by her boringly repetitive dialogue and absolute naivety about the facts of life. I know she's spent time cooped up in a convent but good God, if she can be up to date in the scientific developments of understanding gravity, then how can she be so dense as to not understand anything about sex, or what the word "whore" means? Also she is forever apologising to Count Lucien, the King's adviser, for saying something she believed to be inappropriate or insulting in his presence. Most of the time she just over thinks absolutely everything because whatever it was she said that she believed worthy of an apology, can't have been that bad because it never stuck in my mind long enough to remember what she was saying sorry for. Girl, just chill.

She's not the only one. Her brother Yves is an insufferable dickhead most of the time who constantly orders Marie-Josèphe around. Our beloved protagonist of course never calls him out on his dickish ways and is forever - again - apologising for being such a let-down. There's a scene early in the story where Marie-Josèphe forgets to wake Yves up one morning, thus causing him to miss the King's Awakening Ceremony which he was personally invited to and is apparently a pretty big deal, so he tells her himself once he finally drags his arse out of bed. Dude, this is your problem. Stop being so whinny and relying on your little sister to do everything for you. There's also a love story brewing throughout, but the writing and the fact that the love story involved Marie-Josèphe meant that I no longer cared once things finally got steamy. And by steamy, I mean holding hands and having an awkward smooch in the back of a carriage. Sexy.

If the historical and science fiction collab is something you're interested in then this might be your thing. The only parts of the novel I actually liked were the lavish descriptions of the French Court, but sadly even that wasn't enough to save this for me.
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