I knew I wanted to read a Daphne du Maurier novel over the summer, but I had no title in mind. I let myself be guided by whatever was available in promotion on my Kindle (which is the equivalent, I guess, to choose at random or to let unbridled capitalism exploit me). It was rather a lucky find! Very soon after starting I could not let it go and was thinking about it during my day.
I find the title a bit misleading, or confusing when we start the book, or at least a good starting point for a (book club?) discussion after finishing the book. It’s the story of a switch. John, a middle-aged British history professor on summer break, going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, finds himself in the French back country (French history is his specialty) contemplating a monastery retreat to fill the void in his life. But as he wavers, he gets face to face with his doppelganger, Jean de Gué, a family man, a man with several women around him, an impoverished aristocrat, living in a chateau and owner of a mostly failing glass factory. The man is unpleasant, cunning, but he’s also everything that the narrator isn’t. They have several rounds of drinks together, and next thing he knows, the British man wakes up with a huge hangover in a hotel room, with the other man’s clothes and bags and not a single thing belonging to him.
He could possibly go to the French police and try to convince them of the switch, but he’s tempted to try and live his doppelganger’s life for a moment, convinced that everyone will see through the switch and call him out. But as he’s getting out of the hotel room, everyone calls him “Monsieur le comte”. So over the following days, he gets more and more involved in this other life, tries to understand who the other man is, and then make some changes, involuntary or voluntary.
Although the book starts rather slowly, there’s a very titillating sense of suspense throughout the book (will he be discovered? what should he do? what will his actions cause?) but also psychological analysis and moral dilemmas. The Count himself is like a dark nemesis of Jean. Jean takes his place and plays it like a theater role at first. He discovers who Jean is through the eyes of the persons around him, but when he finds himself a cheating, lying, irresponsible, mean person, he can’t accept that persona and changes the course of actions that Jean would have taken. So the influence goes really both ways. The intrigue gets more complex as the novel advances, and the conclusion is not all black and white.
Just like The House on the Strand took me into a really unexpected territory of time travel and drug, this story is unique and unexpected. I loved it and now want to read yet another Du Maurier very soon!
If you’re curious about Doppelgangers, there’s an article in the New York Times just a few days ago.