I started reading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier while waiting in line for a salad. I had gone down to get Sweetgreen, accepted that my craving for a kale caesar was more potent than my horror at the 20-minute line, and opened the book on my phone. It was an impulsive choice, driven mainly by my desire to finally get it off my TBR.
I’ve been reading the book in snatches, a page or two at a time, in line for coffee at my office or on the seven-block commute home. In spite of this disjointedness, I’ve felt a profound sense of growing anxiety. Our narrator — I have just realized, in trying to name her, that she has none but Mrs. de Winter — has just arrived at Manderley. Already, there is a sense of foreboding: being the second Mrs. de Winter will not be easy. The plot isn’t the root of my anxiety, though. I have dealt with suspense before, and usually handle anticipation without any personal pain.
It took me a few days to realize that our narrator is amplifying my own feelings of uncertainty, and her inability to seize the opportunity to transform, though presented to her on a silver platter of a fairy-tale romance, is driving my frustration.
I am two weeks, to the day, away from being thirty. I will look back on this post in five, or ten, or twenty years and wonder: why was I so worried? That’s certainly how I feel when I think of my anxieties with previous milestone years. I am nothing like what I expected I’d be, but I’ve turned out all right: I have a doctoral degree and a challenging job at a prestigious company. A wonderful husband, an excellent relationship with two healthy parents, and a lovely Manhattan apartment. Health, security, happiness.
But I also have questions: what do I want? Do I stay at my job, with its good salary and 80-hour weeks, or do I pursue writing? Do I risk motherhood, or keep the happiness of this current life, never knowing what could have been? More importantly, who do I want to be? A jeans-and-nerdy-t-shirt kind of woman, or one who wears ironed blouses and makeup? A career woman, or an artist? And how will I know when I’ve found success? When will I know if I chose right?
I have never before felt the need to make vision boards, and yet, here we are.
The first time I remember feeling this way was in high school, around Grade 11. I was attending a private school in Toronto, and the young women who went to my school went to one of several Canadian schools depending on their grades and their friends. I’d set my sights elsewhere: the Ivy League. I’m still not certain why; I, a child of immigrants, had never heard of any of the schools except Harvard, and perhaps Princeton. But as I researched them, the want grew; and as that desire intensified, so did my desire to just know. To be receiving my admissions letter: to understand what my future could be.
I didn’t want to be becoming; I wanted to have become. As if knowing where my feet would next land would be enough.
It seems I have never learned to like the process.
Rebecca gives its narrator the chance to become instantaneously. All she has to do is pick up a mantle, and it will be hers. It seems so easy from the outside: just be.
In truth, we’re at the same crossroads. It’s not the matter of picking up a mantle, but choosing which one, and that seems impossibly hard from here. You always close your eyes and point — that’s something I’ve done most of my life by applying to only one school or one company and letting that be my final choice. You’ll never know what could have been, but the choice has already been made. In contrast, the possibility of spending time evaluating your options and still choosing wrong feels worse.
I want the narrator of Rebecca to choose well because that will make my choices seem easier. It’s wish fulfillment to the strangest fictional degree. I’m tired of closing my eyes and pointing; I want to be deliberate.
I can only hope Rebecca will teach me something of how.
Whether it will or it won’t: I know I’m 81 years late in reading it, and the statute of limitations has expired, but — please don’t spoil it for me.