An American version of ‘Rebecca’

Moonrise. Cassandra King. Maiden Lane. 400 pages. $26.95.
Moonrise. Cassandra King. Maiden Lane. 400 pages. $26.95.

No one who reads the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier will ever forget its haunting first line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” — or the plot twists and terrible conflagration of its final pages. Not even Alfred Hitchcock’s glamorous film adaptation could match the suspense and cunning of du Maurier’s masterpiece. Seventy-five years after its first publication, Rebecca still unnerves and enthralls, and it has inspired Cassandra King to write a modern-day version.

Instead of gloomy, coastal Cornwall in England, Moonrise takes place in Highlands, N.C., a charming mountain town where Floridians and Georgians traditionally escape the summer heat. King echoes the Gothic sensibility of her model: Moonrise is an imposing Victorian mansion with a “moon garden,” celebrated for its night-blooming plants and flowers. Just as in Rebecca, the main character has abruptly married a recent widower, only to find her new life overshadowed by the memory and seeming perfection of his dead first wife.

Our heroine, Helen, is not the down-on-her-luck ingénue of du Maurier’s story; instead, she’s a divorced mother of one and a cooking show host at a Fort Lauderdale TV station. She meets notorious CNN journalist Emmet Justice as he’s recovering from his wife Rosalyn’s death in a freak accident. They begin an affair, which leads to Emmet’s sudden proposal. Helen understandably has misgivings: “Of course it was impulsive, and I was crazy to marry a man I’d known only four months and been involved with less than three. Not only that, Emmet was a widower fifteen years my senior, and had admitted to being a lousy, unfaithful husband.”

In Rebecca, the penniless young narrator’s jump into marriage seems like an act of survival, the only possible escape from a miserable life as a paid companion. But Helen’s actions are harder to fathom, especially since Emmet, although attractive, never exerts the magnetism of du Maurier’s aristocratic Maxim du Winter. Furthermore, she actually talks her new husband into moving into the creepy, forbidding Moonrise and thrusts herself on his still grieving friends, decisions that strike the reader as a mite insensitive. Yet it is to King’s credit that we don’t ponder Helen’s lapses in judgment for long: Moonrise sweeps us away with a cleverly constructed plot and memorable characters. Soon even skeptical readers will wonder if Rosalyn’s ghost haunts her house.

Caustic Tansy, one of Emmet and Rosalyn’s gang of quarrelsome friends, also narrates the story, injecting sarcasm just when things grow a bit earnest: “Even if I could accept Rosalyn being replaced by a health-conscious Cracker with bouncy hair and a perky butt, I’d still have trouble with the woman herself.” She records Helen’s effect on her circle: money-hungry snob Kit; Pulitzer prize-winning poet Myna; incapacitated professor Linc; handsome womanizer Noel. The other narrator, down-to-earth countrywoman Willa, has blunt, sometimes humorous assessments of the wealthy summer visitors who employ her, such as when they’re at an old swimming hole: “Tansy’s got on a bathing suit that looks like two strings tied over her privates.”

Three distinct narrative voices — Helen, Tansy and Willa — keep the novel moving forward at a fine clip. Although its final revelations aren’t as explosive as Rebecca’s, Moonrise delivers its own disarming Southern brand of sinister mystery.

Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.

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