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Embracing, Then Rejecting, A Life Of Melodrama

by Tara Altebrando
Sep 3, 2012

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Tara Altebrando is the author of Dreamland Social Club, The Pursuit of Happiness and What Happens Here.

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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.

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Hill House ()

Three Hauntingly Unforgettable Literary Houses

by Laura Miller
Oct 26, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Houses can be bought and sold, but if nothing else, the current housing crisis teaches us the danger of treating a house as a mere commodity. Literature is full of reminders that houses have souls, a fact characters forget at their own peril. In some novels, the house is as much a force as any of the people in the story. When that happens, the human characters had better beware.


Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, paperback, 416 pages

Some houses are haunted by dead people, but in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, the people are haunted by the house. It's called Manderley, a bewitchingly beautiful estate on the coast of Cornwall. Everyone in the novel is obsessed with Manderley. The first thing we learn about the novel's narrator is that she dreams about the place. What we never find out is her name; let's call her the second Mrs. de Winter, a shy and gawky bride recently married to Manderley's owner, a widower twice her age. She's convinced that her husband is still in love with his glamorous first wife, Rebecca, and it sure doesn't help that the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers — one of literature's great villains — keeps telling her how much better Rebecca was at being the mistress of Manderley. But Rebecca was not what she seemed, and Manderley's many secrets will not stay buried forever.

'The Haunting of Hill House'

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, paperback, 208 pages

If Manderley is seductive, the supremely creepy New England mansion in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, is downright evil. What makes a house go bad? According to Jackson, some of them are just built that way. At Hill House, every apparently right angle is slightly off, certain doors won't stay closed — or open — and nothing is quite where you thought it would be.

The house is literally deranged, which may explain why so many of its former residents have killed themselves. Into this malevolent environment come four would-be ghost hunters, determined to capture evidence of the paranormal. Hill House, however, has other ideas, and like any natural predator, it sets its sights on the weakest member of the herd.

'House of Leaves'

House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski, paperback, 709 pages

The house in Mark Danielewski's experimental novel, House of Leaves, is just as formidable as Hill House, even if it doesn't have a name. It's an ordinary suburban home in Virginia, until the day the residents come back from a vacation to find a closet where before there was only a blank wall. Careful measurements reveal the impossible: The house appears to be growing, becoming bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. A hallway opens out of the living room wall, leading to a seemingly infinite maze of dark rooms and passageways. Danielewski's novel is the latest literary twist on the house as a symbol of the human psyche, convoluted and absorbing. But the message remains the same: However fascinating we may find the insides of our heads, sometimes we're best off following mom's advice and heading outside for a little fresh air.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

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