What if you could run away from your life and assume the life of another? That’s what the protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s novel yearns for. As a professor, John is well-versed in the French history, but he never does feel that oneness that a Frenchman would. He considers himself an outsider, leading a life no better than that of a tourist. Considering himself as a failure, John craves to unburden himself from his past. It is when he’s occupied with such melancholy thoughts, that John runs into his doppelgänger Jean, a Frenchman. The resemblance between the two is so uncanny that John exclaims to Jean, “You’re not the devil by any chance?”
Just when John is looking to escape his life, he, through no volition of his, is compelled to assume the identity of Jean, when the latter leaves him asleep in a hotel room, making away with John’s stuff and car. When John wakes up the next morning, people are already mistaking him for Jean. One thing leads to another and before long, John finds himself at Jean’s chateau. Without knowing anything about Jean’s family, work or life, John is constantly walking a tightrope, having to improvise at every stage. He is thrust into the centre of a buzzing life, entirely different from his own, empty one.
Jean’s family comes across as selfish, too full of themselves. A mother who smothers her son with affection, a wife who is discontent, a daughter who worships her father, a sister who is bitter, a brother who feels insignificant, a sister-in-law who seduces. The caricature that du Maurier draws of each of her characters is typical, and yet they are all so vivid and powerful.
The story won’t disappoint you. And as is peculiar of du Maurier’s style, just when you believe that the story is approaching its end, a settled state of affairs, du Maurier introduces a final twist, unveils one last act of villainy that will have you exclaiming, “No, no!”
This book is not one to be taken literally, so a reader must suspend belief. Peel back the story layer by layer and a fascinating tale of deception, discovery and the dangerous temptation to be someone else is revealed. Jean’s life is in complete shambles, and he doesn’t want to deal with it. So is John’s, even though they are both contrasting. From a dull existence, John rapidly moves towards conflicts, for which he must find resolutions. I found myself rooting for John and towards the end, I did wish that John would continue in his disguise, continue the role of the imposter.
The way the suspense unravels is something only a master storyteller can do, and du Maurier is every bit a fantastic storyteller. It was Jean his family expected to have returned from Le Mans, but it is John who gives the confidence and meaning, they all have been looking for. In the end, Jean has to stand up to everything that John was. Even though John lived as Jean, Jean must now, in turn, become John.
I always think that du Maurier’s work gets wrongly classified under romance, even though her stories do have the touch of a romantic. But they are so much deeper, more mystery than anything else. This book ends exactly where it should. But it does leave you with a sense of curiosity, “What happened after?”
How did Du Maurier do this – maintaining mystery and unravelling them at moments when the reader least expect it? She keeps the suspense going right until the final pages of the book and leaves you feeling a little empty after too.
I don’t cease to be fascinated by her. Her prose, her stories, her characters, their mysteries, their conflicts, comedies and tragedies of their life, how did she capture them so vividly and beautifully? I wish she had lived so that I could write to her. Catch up for drinks perhaps. Tell her how much I adore her work. How alive I feel in stories of Cornwall, of dual personalities, of one-sided loves, of duplicity.
I recommend du Maurier to anyone who loves to read. And this book is not one to miss.
Published:1957 | Pages: 373 Pages
Gothic | Historical Fiction | Mystery