I've always meant to read something by Daphne du Maurier, an acclaimed English writer of suspense novels with Gothic elements. When I heard that My Cousin Rachel was being made into a movie, I decided to read the book first. Published in the early 1950s, the novel is set in Cornwall but the time is indeterminate. The characters travel by horseback and carriage, so I would assume 19th century. The story is told entirely from the point of view of Philip Ashley, a twenty-four-old who is essentially a Gothic heroine in a man's body. He's naïve and emotionally malleable and I loved seeing this trope turned on its head.
Philip was orphaned at a young age and taken in by an older cousin, Ambrose. Ambrose owns an estate on which he raises Philip in an entirely masculine and misogynistic atmosphere (no female servants). However, once Philip is grown, Ambrose suffers from an unnamed illness which forces him to spend the winter in warmer, dryer Italy. One year, Ambrose writes back to Philip that he's met a distant cousin of theirs, Rachel. Before long, bachelor-for-life Ambrose has married Rachel in a surprise move. Then tragedy strikes and Ambrose dies unexpectedly after writing some cryptic and incriminating letters to Philip. Philip suspects Rachel of playing a part in Ambrose's death and he creates a picture of her in his mind of an ugly, mean-spirited shrew. Then Rachel comes to England and Philip is lost to her charm, beauty, and femininity. The rest of the story plays out with Philip's emotions and feelings toward Rachel zigzagging here, there, and everywhere.
I loved du Maurier's evocative writing and the way she could have a character say something simple and yet multiple meanings lay beneath those words. You won't get a definitive account of what actually happened in Italy with Ambrose but the journey is interesting nonetheless and the ending surprised me.