Friday, January 24, 2014

#4 [2014-CBR6] "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith

Like many of the books I read these days, I first heard of I Capture the Castle (1948) by Dodie Smith from a Cannonball Review (maybe Malin's?). And I'm so glad I read it. It reminded me of a book with a big chunk of Anne of Green Gables mixed with a little Pride and Prejudice. It's amazing that this book has just been sitting around, available, for over sixty years, and I had no idea. It's similar to how I felt when I first read Pride and Prejudice my freshman year of college: Why didn't anyone tell me how good this was? [although nothing can quite compare to Pride and Prejudice]. This is a book I probably would have enjoyed even more in high school.

I Capture the Castle is told entirely though the journal entries of Cassandra Mortmain, a young lady just finished with school and living with her family in England in the 1920's. Cassandra's father is a one-time-wonder of a novelist, famous for a James Joyce, Ulysses-type book written many years before. Cassandra's mother died when she was young. She also lives with her step-mother, Topaz, her older sister, Rose, her younger brother, Thomas, and Stephen, a young man who helps around the house.

The family lives in a decrepit castle that has been leased from the owner for forty years. They struggle with having enough money to get food on the table and live in pretty dire straits. That is until the new heirs of the castle show up on Cassandra's doorstep. Simon and Neil are brothers from America, come to inherit their grandfather's estate. Matters get complicated when a love pentagon (?) erupts between Rose, Cassandra, Stephen, Neil, and Simon. Cassandra grows up, learns about herself, falls in love, and learns more about her father as people sort themselves out. Although there were a couple spots that slowed the book down, Cassandra's narrative voice, her odd family, and her coming-of-age story kept me very happy while I was reading this book.

There were a number of characters in this book and/or their actions that captured my attention. I'm not sure if this is just because it was written in the 1940's, and it's too old fashioned for me, or if it's simply how Smith wanted her characters.

First, although the father seemed to be insightful and caring once or twice in the book, for the most part, I really disliked him. His family is suffering, Rose is miserable and his daughters are literally trapped by their circumstances, which continue to worsen. And he won't do anything about it! If he can't write, he could try to make money in some other way. Or try to help out his family in some way besides have them wait on him while he reads mystery novels! I understand the feeling of helplessness when what you want to do is unavailable to you, but sometimes you have to suck it up. He's also rude, incredibly self absorbed, and prone to violent tantrums. I didn't like that everyone excused his behavior because he's a "genius." I especially disliked that Topaz liked the idea of being with a violent man, that if she suffered through his violence, she was somehow helping him with his artistry.

Second, I hated how Stephen was treated in this book by the Mortmain family. Talk about taking someone for granted. Stephen was not part of the family and slept in a dingy little room next to the kitchen that used to be a place for hens. He is not paid for all of the work he does for the Mortmains and barely gets room and board. And then he goes and works at a farm all week and gives all of his wages to the Mortmains. How can they not be ashamed of themselves? Even while Rose, and Cassandra, and her father fancy themselves above Stephen, he is the only reason they have any food. Apparently he's deliciously gorgeous, yet no one in the family even takes notice. I wanted Cassandra to come to her senses and end up with Stephen, although Smith did an admirable job of painting Stephen as an almost-creepy lovesick puppy at the beginning of the novel.

Finally, I was surprised by the portrayal of Cassandra and her nudity. Cassandra is taking a bath in the kitchen when she first meets Simon and Neil. What surprised me was that it didn't seem to be a big deal to anyone--even when they discover that she's not a child. I would have thought that it would have been embarrassing on both sides and there would have been more awkwardness. I was also reminded of this when Cassandra and Neil go swimming in the moat one night. Cassandra mentions that her swimsuit is several years old and way too small for her, especially across the chest. She mentions that she went down to the moat by the back staircase in order to avoid the sitting room in her bathing suit. Yet she seems completely unselfconscious while running around in front of Neil, Simon, and Rose all night. She's eighteen and seemingly willing to fall in love with anyone around her yet she appears to be completely unaware of her body or her effect on other people.

I did want Cassandra to end up with Stephen, although I liked that I was kept guessing until the end and that Cassandra made a wise choice by focusing on herself. I was left with the feeling that Simon would come back when he was more healed and Simon and Cassandra would end up together--if Cassandra didn't find someone else before then. Stephen would just have to find someone more worthy--although I'm afraid the world of the movies is going to throw him into the wrong crowd. Too bad there isn't a sequel...

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