Just Finished Reading: Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin

Review of Thorn Abbey
by Nancy Ohlin
To be published by Simon Pulse
on May 7, 2013

Source: e-ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss. Please see my full FTC disclosure on the right sidebar.

Connect with the author: website : Twitter.

Summary (from author's website:) Gone but not forgotten ...
Becca was the perfect girlfriend: smart, gorgeous, and loved by everyone at New England’s premier boarding school, Thorn Abbey.  But Becca’s dead.  And her boyfriend, Max, can’t get over his loss. Then Tess transfers to Thorn Abbey. She’s shy and insecure—everything that Becca wasn’t.  And despite her roommate’s warnings, she falls for brooding Max. Now Max finally has a reason to move on.  Except, it won’t be easy. Becca may be gone, but she’s not quite ready to let him go….
My take: I'm a big fan of Rebecca, a 1938 novel by Daphne duMaurier, so I'm always up for checking out a new interpretation of the story.

In January 2012, I reviewed New Girl by Paige Harbison, another YA retelling of Rebecca. In that review, I summarize the main plot of the original story. In short, Rebecca is a gothic romance that features a brooding hero, a heroine who is insecure in love, an atmospheric old house, and the sinister presence of another woman.

To me, one of the challenges that comes with retelling Rebecca is that many elements of the original story are also things that drive modern YA readers crazy: a female narrator who is mousy and unconfident, a male love interest who runs extremely hot and cold, either declaring his love to the heroine or pushing her away, a strong dose of insta-love, and a plot that builds suspense very slowly. On the positive side of things, Rebecca offers a spooky supernatural vibe and a couple of truly sinister female villains.

Thorn Abbey uses a very similar premise to that of New Girl: a new girl arrives at a fancy boarding school to find that she's assigned to the room of a dead student, Rebecca. I was glad that Thorn Abbey didn't make the main character completely meek, just out of her element. Tess is a scholarship student in a school full of rich kids. She doesn't understand their language -- peppered with talk about Killington and Klonies -- and they treat her with cheerful disdain.

Max, the love interest, was a bit of another story. In the original book, the heroine spends the majority of the book feeling that she can never live up to the beauty and talent of her husband Max's dead wife, Rebecca. In Thorn Abbey, Tess is trying to develop a relationship with fellow student Max while worrying that he still carries a torch for his dead girlfriend.  Max came off to me as mopey rather than brooding and I never really felt any connection between the two of them.

Another challenge in updating Rebecca is that the original book relies on two shocking plot revelations that don't occur until well into the story: (highlight to read spoiler) first, that Max actually loathed Rebecca, and second, that he was responsible for her death. (end spoiler.) As a result, some readers I've pushed Rebecca on have found the pace too slow. The book holds the reader's interest through the heroine's feelings of inadequacy and the way they are intensified by the evil machinations of her husband's creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. In Thorn Abbey, Mrs. Danvers is re-cast as Tess's roommate, Devon, who came off as more ditzy than demented.

But then, Thorn Abbey took a bold and intriguing supernatural turn: (highlight to read spoiler) namely, killing Devon and having her possessed by the spirit of the dead Rebecca. (end spoiler.) I really wish that this had happened earlier in the story, as I think it would have ramped up the tension in the first half of the book. After this revelation, the book really picks up in suspense. The ending is also a bit of a shocker, a spooky departure from the original. On the downside, the ending is very abrupt.

As a die-hard fan of Rebecca, I did enjoy Thorn Abbey.  I also appreciated the little in-jokes, like the characters' obsession with the movie To Catch a Thief and the new role played by Frank Crawley. Readers who are completely unfamiliar with the original book should keep in mind that a little patience is in order, as like the original Rebecca, Thorn Abbey backloads all the exciting stuff into the last quarter of the story.

Have you read Rebecca or seen Alfred Hitchcock's movie based on the book?


  1. I've read about 15% of this and I'm finding it rather slow but some of the thoughts Tess has really grate on me (she seems to put herself down a lot) Granted, as you said, this is an element of the retelling. So far, I'm just having a hard time connecting to any character.

  2. I really love Rebecca (even got my picky sister to read and love it) as well as the film version (Olivier!) Love knowing that the roommate is Mrs. Danvers even if she is more ditzy than demented. I really want to check this one out as well as New Girl just because I enjoy the Rebecca story so much.

  3. I have this from Edelweiss too and am planning on reading it next week. Great review (I skipped your spoilers since I will be reading it)! I have read Rebecca and seen the movie and love them both! I need to read New Girl too.

  4. I'm also a die hard Rebecca fan, and am willing to give any update a try. I really liked New Girl, despite some annoying character issues I had. I had no plans to read this because I didn't know it was a Rebecca retelling, but now I'm definitely intrigued. Great review, I'll have to check this out!

  5. This sounds like a good book I might enjoy. Nice review.

  6. I LOVE Rebecca. It is one of my top favorite books. BUT I can definitely see where there are some elements that frustrate readers today. It's also hard for me to see adequately updated in a teen setting. I have a hard time rooting for a hot guy who stayed with his evil girlfriend for so long, and then like the poor new girl. I'm also not so sure about the supernatural element. One of my favorite aspects of Rebecca is that it seems like her ghost is haunting everyone, and you feel her presence, but she's never there. I am interested in this book however, and I'm glad you reviewed it. Your thoughts are very thoughtful!

  7. Hmmm... maybe I will read the original... I liked the spoilers.

  8. I just started this one and I'm just waiting for a tad bit of free time so I can focus on it. I haven't read Rebecca though, so I'm not sure I'll actually get the parallels or not.


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