. . . and a redundant 'Rebecca' redux

December 05, 1993|By Chris Kridler

Title: "Mrs. de Winter"

Author: Susan Hill

Publisher: William Morrow

Length, price: 349 pages, $20 It's easy for a reader who loved Daphne du Maurier's sinister and lyrical "Rebecca" to object to the idea of a sequel.

"Rebecca" ended uneasily, as it should have; a sequel to the 1938 novel can only deflate, or inflate, that sense of haunted completion, because it extends a story already finished. That's the bias of this reader, who loved "Rebecca," a bias that must be acknowledged in looking at Susan Hill's sincere but unnecessary sequel, "Mrs. de Winter."

For the most part, Ms. Hill captures du Maurier's style, her sense of nature (sometimes to excess) and her knack for evoking memories through details. Ms. Hill, a prize-winning author who wrote "Mrs. de Winter" at the request of the du Maurier estate, has mastered du Maurier's art of foreshadowing -- but the story doesn't always live up to that dark promise.

What is this new story? How do we find Mrs. de Winter after all these years? We never knew her given name. She was the gauche girl who married the brooding Maxim de Winter, only to be ensnared by the legacy of his accomplished and beautiful first wife, Rebecca, who died mysteriously at sea.

Rebecca, beloved by all, was, in fact, a cold and manipulative monster who was murdered by her husband and worshiped by the creepy Mrs. Danvers, the servant who had the run of Maxim's estate, Manderley. The mansion was destroyed in a suspicious fire in the unforgettable conclusion to "Rebecca," which made it clear that the de Winters fled the country to escape the past, to live in quiet and fragile exile.

Ms. Hill must bring them back to England, and so she does, with a funeral. The de Winters' homecoming is bittersweet, of course, because the ghosts of the past haunt the hills of Britain as they never did abroad. Still, Mrs. de Winter rejoices in being home at last:

" . . . I noticed so much, so many different trees, and tried to name them all, for these were the very things I had thought of and dreamed about and remembered, in such detail. . . ."

Part of the romance of "Rebecca" was that, at last, the de Winters discovered the depth of their love and learned the need for honesty. Now, however, secrets again arise between them. Mrs. de Winter's need to protect her husband from the past is an unconvincing device to resurrect the tension of the original plot.

A sequel must revisit its predecessor, but it's hard to recapture the magic without seeming repetitive. Scenes in "Mrs. de Winter" are simply too close: a party gone awry, for instance, and a belated confrontation with Mrs. Danvers, who is still hoarding Rebecca's silver brushes.

Ah, Mrs. Danvers. She was the real villain of "Rebecca," the immediate shadow cast over Mrs. de Winter's precarious happiness. Except for one chilling hint of her near the beginning of "Mrs. de Winter," she shows up too late to revive "Rebecca's" claustrophobic, poetic suspense.

The slow middle of "Mrs. de Winter" is in desperate need of bad guys. Little reminders of the old days at Manderley, even the rude appearance of Mrs. Van Hopper (our heroine's former employer), lack the punch to really make us catch our breath in horror as Mrs. de Winter continually does. She lapses into the frustrating, mousy ways that she had finally overcome in "Rebecca."

The bottom line for any sequel is one question: What happened? "Rebecca" was open-ended, though not exactly happy. "Mrs. de Winter" is definitively grim. Ms. Hill courageously avoids a Hollywood ending. Although a bit strained, it is more satisfying, in some ways, than the rest of the book.

For a devoted fan of "Rebecca," perhaps the question is, why "end" the tale at all? Well, that's up to you, and whether you feel a need to know more than du Maurier told you, in a way that brooks no speculation.

Ms. Hill's story concludes with an appropriate homage to her predecessor. The last words echo those of "Rebecca" and have the same grace and power. But the path that leads to that moment twists and turns a little too far beyond the boundaries of character and emotion laid out by du Maurier, despite Ms. Hill's obvious respect for the original. Ms. Hill's prose resonates, in flashes, with the same eerie beauty, but her valiant quest must fail in the end -- the prize was already taken.

Ms. Kridler is a copy editor on the National Desk of The Sun.

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