Yes. Yes, it can.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, is solidly Gothic literature—full of gloomy mansions and brooding romantic interests and strange noises coming from the attic—and doesn’t seem to be a likely candidate for a modern update. In Rebecca, our young, nameless protagonist marries a wealthy man hiding some pretty intense secrets about his late wife. Not the sort of thing you’d think would translate into the lives of high school seniors.
Despite this, I am pleased to say that New Girl is a success. It would be more accurate to say that New Girl is inspired by Rebecca than to say it’s a strict update. A novel that followed the original too closely would be boring and predictable, but New Girl is neither.
As in Rebecca, the protagonist does not provide her name. She transfers to Manderley Academy in her senior year, braving cold weather and her classmates’ even colder treatment. In everything she does she is compared to Becca Normandy, the beautiful, charismatic, and mysteriously missing student. Becca’s disappearance is the reason that Manderley can accommodate a new pupil, and the protagonist must room with Becca’s obsessed ex-roommate under the perfect gaze of Becca’s old photographs.
There’s a tall, dark, and handsome Gothic love interest, of course, appropriately named Max. The trouble is that by all accounts he was utterly in love with Becca, which makes him strictly off-limits for the protagonist. An abundance of teenage angst results, but there are good reasons for it. After all, Becca might just be alive and waiting to return.
Becca, like du Maurier’s titular Rebecca de Winter, is haunting in her absence. But Harbison has a new take on that, too. She uses doses of Becca’s perspective to provide background and mimic the journey of the protagonist. Rebecca de Winter is a dimensionless character, but Becca Normandy’s personality comes right off the page.
I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t want to read about teenage debauchery; Manderley Academy has plenty of it. My only real complaint is New Girl’s dream sequences: the shift from reality is jarring and the dreams are ultimately less satisfying than the real life scenes.
I was afraid I would be able to predict all the specifics of the conclusion because I had the details of Rebecca fresh in my mind, but I was fortunately in for a few surprises. Don’t assume you know where everything is headed just because you’ve read Rebecca! New Girl doesn’t use Rebecca as a crutch, and it doesn’t have to. It’s good storytelling on its own.
Bridget is a high school senior who is delighted to be writing (a favorite activity) about books (a favorite subject). Her favorite genre is fantasy, but she has been known to have an eclectic taste. Her other loves are music, dancing, and history.