17 July 2012

Review 47: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

"Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. Her journal records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fadingly glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer's block. However, all their lives are turned upside down when the American heirs to the castle arrive and Cassandra finds herself falling in love for the first time."

I don't quite know how I've managed to miss this book for so long. I'd heard of it and knew a little about the basic plot. I started reading it when I was eighteen but my bag was stolen with it in when I was only a few pages in so never finished it. I'm so amazed because I loved it so much, and I'm surprised it hasn't been foisted on me by people who know my taste, maybe people assume I have already read it. Anyway, this is the funny, charming and wonderful story of Cassandra Mortmain and her eccentric family as Cassandra grows up and learns a bit about the world and herself. It is told as Cassandra's journals and she has such a lovely voice which repeatedly made me giggle as well as really love her as she attempts to navigate life and love.

First Line: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

Why I read this: I recently bought the lovely new Random House Vintage Classics cover (designed by Celia Birtwell) for the library and remembered that it is one I had always meant to read.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of classic coming of age stories such as Anne of Green Gables or My Name is Mina, for something more modern.

Cassandra Mortmain and her family are poor. Her father's first wildly popular novel, Jacob Wrestling, seems to have been a one off and he spends all his time in the gatehouse reading detective novels. Her older sister Rose does not deal well with being poor and her brother spends most of his time at school. Her mother died when she was much younger and her father has remarried the glamorous and eccentric Topaz, who loves them all dearly but spends her time connecting with nature, naked. Cassandra reads avidly and spends her time writing in her journals, which form I Capture the Castle, as she attempts to capture her family and life in words. Cassandra's voice is so appealing, if not necessarily realistic, in her let's just get on with it approach to being poor, she is intelligent, charming and funny and just so likeable, "I don't get as used to margarine as I could wish. I thank heaven that there is no cheaper form of bread than bread." You could argue that it does rather romanticise poverty and the severe lack of food and money, or parental care, would be rather concerning in real life. But thankfully this is not real life so just enjoy Cassandra's wonderful perspective on it.

It all kicks off when the wealthy American owners of the land that the castle is on return and become embroiled in the eccentricity of the Mortmain family. The two sons, Simon and Neil immediately capture the girls attention with possibilities of romance and money. Rose is attracted to the older, more sensible Simon and they begin a tentative romance whilst both the brothers enjoy Cassandra and the rest of her family's English eccentricities. Whilst I loved this novel generally, I did prefer the first half before everything gets a little more serious. The first half had me laughing and smiling and just revelling in Cassandra's wonderful voice. There are some very funny set pieces as well, there is an incident in a train where Rose dressed in a huge fur coat is mistaken for a bear and I couldn't stop laughing, Smith makes this completely ridiculous event just believable enough and wonderfully entertaining.

As I mentioned, the second half gets a little more serious as people start having to make difficult decisions and innocent relationships and lighthearted romances develop. Cassandra is also dealing with her fathers writers block and her relationship with Stephen, who works for the family but isn't actually paid, as his feelings for her are revealed. Perhaps one criticism I had was that I found neither of Cassandra's potential love interests especially appealing but I found Cassandra extremely sympathetic, and whilst her situation is rather more  extreme or bizarre than most of us experience, her attitudes to life, romance, family and religion are very familiar to the universal teenager. Her love of books and words also meant that I fell for her more, and having just read My Name is Mina by David Almond, I was really reminded of Mina's voice in that much more recent book.

All in all, this is a classic for a reason. It is a charming, funny and familiar story of growing up which will ring true to many readers, especially English female readers I imagine. The eccentric goings on of the Mortmain family are entertaining and engaging but it is Cassandra's voice that really makes this special.



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