In continuing within the vein of retellings I opted to read New Girl by Paige Harbison, a contemporary reimagining of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Rebecca is one of my all time favourite books, so I knew this read would be fraught with peril. Because of that I was willing to give it a little bit more of a go. I was immediately put off by the tone of this book and it did not let up until I decided to give up the ghost – I do not like this book. Not even a little. Not even at all. It’s bloody awful.
* Spoilers ahead for anyone intent on reading this book *
As in Rebecca we are introduced to a female nameless narrator in a new situation. The narrator has transferred to the prestigious Manderley Academy, a private school in… New England if I had to guess (she’s from Florida). When she arrives she learns that she is only there because another girl, Rebecca Normandy, has gone missing, and our esteemed Narrator has won her place. Her new roommate Dana despises her very presence knowing that she is a poor substitute for Becca. Everyone at Manderley steers clear of her. Our Narrator is haunted by Becca at every step.
Then our Narrator meets Max, stoic and handsome and just as haunted. Becca was Max’s girlfriend before her disappearance. The rumour mill surges – Becca is pregnant with Max’s child and in hiding until after she gives it up for adoption is the favourite of the masses. The Narrator hopes with all her heart that this is untrue. She has developed feelings for the broody and elegant Max and she refuses to let anyone, even a possible ghost, stand in the way.
Once I started my curiosity got the better of me on this book. Harbison tells this story in alternating narratives from both Becca and the Narrator’s point of view. This twist allows her to introduce the original dynamics with a much more contemporary edge. Once that was established I simply had to know how Harbison would tie up the loose ends – how she would retell the ending. As I progressed it was very obvious that the book was not very good. I have just finished reading April Lindner’s flawless Jane and Catherine retellings, so I chalked it up to that. My reading of this was coloured and I should give it more of a chance.
As I continued I began to notice thematic issues that nagged at me. Rebecca is a beautiful book because of the complexities that DuMaurier threw into the mix – the Narrator’s growth as she becomes more self-assertive against Rebecca’s tyranny, the intractable nature of hate and jealousy, the greed and the envy and the sexual dominance of the original… I should have just reread that. I would have gotten more out of that read. Instead I opted for… this. Harbison zeroes in on the sexual games and the jealousy for this book and never fully develops anything else. The nuances of character and tone are completely absent from this book and that renders this book very flat and undefinable. Even the fact that the Narrator remains nameless seems forced and not as natural as in the original book. Nothing was done right.
And then we get to the truth – the reason I stopped. Harbison reveals the reason why her “Becca” does the things she does. Becca decided to rule Manderley when she walked across the threshold. For a few months she schemed and manipulated her way to the top, choosing Max as her counterpart because the girls told her he was unattainable (despite her relentless attraction to Johnny, who she cheats on Max with). Becca wanted to be “the” power couple, and Max afforded her that status. Becca is cruel, heartless, and completely repugnant. But then Harbison drops the bomb – the reason Becca became the way she did. And yes, I am going to spoil it for everyone because I find it a bit unbelievable. At her previous school Becca was ostracized after aiding a fellow student to rape her best friend. Becca put a date rape drug into her friend’s drink when a boy asked her to with zero personal misgivings. When the student body found out about everything Becca became a social pariah and was ignored and tormented by her peers… and when she got to a new school she decided everything would be different, that no one would ignore her or look down on her ever again.
Ummm… what? I’m sorry… isn’t that, more or less, the behaviour of a sociopath? Someone who behaves criminally without moral repercussions? Not that Rebecca wasn’t in DuMaurier’s classic, make no mistake of that. She was a sociopath. But why did Harbison have to go there as an impetus for Becca’s behaviour at Manderley? Why did she have to make this character complicit, and indifferent, of a rape?
When that came up in the story I checked out. Frankly, I became very angry. Why did she have to boil everything down to sex? And not just sex, but bodily manipulation and molestation as well. Even in the beginning it’s obvious that Becca is not acting in a way conducive to her character. She decided to become a slut, so she became one. Easily. Why was this the only factor in this book when the original has so many more complex dynamics to work with beyond sexual control (though again, that was a heavy factor in Rebecca)? It seemed an easy way out and it cheapens the original story. It’s a horrible bastardization of a beautiful book.
I didn’t finish it and I don’t encourage anyone to read it. It’s terrible and I find nothing redemptive about it. 0 out of 5 stars.