My disappointment with Rebecca notwithstanding, I wanted to see how, and whether, the story told by du Maurier would hold up in a modern retelling. Fortuitously, two different YA retellings were published in the last year or so:
New Girl was written by Paige Harbison and published by Harlequin Teen in January 2012.
Thorn Abbey was written by Nancy Ohlin and published by Simon Pulse on May 7. Both authors are new to me.
My overall impression of both books can be summed up in a single word: meh. I have concluded that Rebecca simply doesn’t translate well to the modern world.
Interestingly both New Girl and Thorn Abbey were set in boarding schools in New England. Why, you ask, were both of these retellings set in a boarding school? I have no idea. In both cases, Rebecca was the extremely popular girl who had disappeared the year before, leaving behind her grieving boyfriend – Max, natch – and a whole bunch of people who were pretty irritated that her place was being filled by the narrator. In both books our narrator gets Rebecca’s dorm room, and her moderately crazy roommate, the Mrs. Danvers character, who goes out of her way to sabotage the main character’s ability to fit in at the school.
So, I didn’t love either of them. I liked New Girl a tiny smidge more than Thorn Abbey, although I have a friend who preferred Thorn Abbey to New Girl. Here is why:
Thorn Abbey failed for me because the story started out as straight retelling, and then it veered into a very strange mashup of Rebecca and paranormal/ghost possession. I am fine with paranormal romance, and I wouldn’t absolutely object to a retelling of Rebecca that had paranormal/fantasy/sci fi elements (hello, I really liked Diana Peterfreund’s speculative fiction Persuasion retelling And Darkness Shows the Stars) but I want the book to be intentionally that. This felt like an after thought. As though, at some point, someone told the author: you know what would make this book really different? Ghost possession! And she was all: sure, I’ll go with that.
New Girl had it’s own problems, though, including the whole “unnamed narrator” conceit. Daphne du Maurier can get away with it because she’s Daphne du Maurier. But for me, it was just too cute and it didn’t work. Give the girl a name (before the last few pages).
New Girl also made an effort to flesh out Rebecca’s character and provide a reasonable and coherent explanation for why she was such a terrible person – she had really poor self-esteem and sought peer approval in a very self-destructive way. In the context, though, of the Rebecca universe created by du Maurier that reason is not at all consistent with the character that du Maurier created. The original Rebecca had an abundance of self-esteem as du Maurier wrote her – so much that she refused to be bound by society’s limitations on her behavior.
In the end, though, I just don’t think that the story of Rebecca works in a modern teen context. In the original Rebecca, the protagonist was married to Max and had, literally, no where to go. I don’t like her weakness, but I understand it. But in the modern retellings, the weakness of the narrator in sticking with a boy who is supposed to be in love to someone else smacks of self-loathing and cowardice. There is no reason that she would behave the way she does. All of the social boundaries that provide a structure for the original novel don’t exist in the modern world.
This is similar, in my mind, to the problems that exist when authors try to simply wholesale import Jane Austen’s world into a modern context. Today, Lizzie and Darcy would thumb their respective noses at their families and move in together. Marianne and Elinor would get jobs and marry the men of their choosing on their own terms. And Anne Elliot would never have broken off her engagement to Captain Wentworth.
Today, Max would just dump Rebecca before she disappears and move on to another girl that he could genuinely love. Retelling a story that relies upon no-longer-extant historical conventions to make sense in the modern world is difficult to do convincingly without setting up some other social structure in it’s place to explain the character’s actions. It might be possible to set Rebecca in the old West, or in a highly religious society, or in a fantasy world where there are similar social structures. An author could go backwards, and write it steampunk, or forward to space opera or dystopian, but tossing it into a 2013 boarding school in New England – well, I just don’t think it works.
So where is the flintlock fantasy version of Rebecca? Because I would totally read that!
In the end, while both New Girl and Thorn Abbey were fine in terms of writing, editing, and all of those mechanical details that are important, and there is nothing about them that would prevent me from reading something else written by the authors, the story itself just didn’t work for me.