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Embracing, Then Rejecting, A Life Of Melodrama

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
September 3, 2012

Tara Altebrando is the author of The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life.

The summer before high school, I was dreading the required reading list. I was switching from public school to an all-girls Catholic school. I feared the worst.

Dickens made two appearances. Hemingway, at least one.

But in a one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other scenario, there was a book on there called Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. It turned out to be a dark, Gothic novel. A young bride lives in an isolated mansion, where secrets swirl around Rebecca, her husband’s dead first wife.

I remember wondering — what kind of nuns are these?

I had spent most of my childhood wishing that my life was more interesting and dramatic. I would lie awake in bed wishing to someday be loved obsessively and die tragically. Then ideally I’d haunt someone who’d scorned me.

I loved books that let me pretend I was something other than a normal girl with a schoolteacher and insurance adjuster for parents. I wanted to look for wrinkles in time, fight for survival on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. And if a book didn’t make me desperate to be a part of the story, I’d put it down.

Rebecca is narrated by the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter. We never learn her first name. In the beginning of the story she’s a young woman with no parents and no prospects. Then she meets the handsome widower, Mr. de Winter. He marries her and saves her from a life of servitude. He whisks her off to Manderley, his country estate.

It should have been a field day for my 13-year-old imagination. Especially when you factor in that I’d just been to Europe for the first time. I had even taken a ferry along the Cornish coastline where Manderley would have been. But something had happened while we were away. A friend of mine from elementary school had died of encephalitis. We’d missed the wake and funeral, and she was gone. I felt awful. I didn’t start reading Rebecca until after I was home. I was hooked by the writing, but as the pages whipped by I realized I wasn’t so desperate to identify. Here was the kind of adult drama I’d always loved. But somehow the darkness just felt too close to home.

It was Rebecca that made me realize I didn’t wish my life were more like a Gothic novel. For the first time, the melodrama didn’t appeal. There was no one in the world of Rebecca whom I wanted to be. Nothing in its pages I wanted to experience. And when the whole tragic love story — all of the betrayals and manipulations — ended in a fiery blaze, I was glad to be released from it. I entered high school as a different person. Still an eager reader, but at bedtime I dreamed of happy endings — not tragic ones.

I dreamed, specifically, of a return trip to England, another ferry ride and a cute boy who would stroll over to me so that I might casually say, “Hey. Have you ever read Rebecca?”

PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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