Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

(Reviewed by Lucia)

Published: 1949

It's about: Smith's first novel is narrated through the journal of prickly intelligent Cassandra Mortmain. Living with her eccentric father suffering from dense, decade old writer's block, step mother, a painter's model who still believes that living in a bare and crumbling castle in the English countryside is romantic, classically beautiful older sister Rose, lonely and vain, bright younger brother Thomas, and Stephen the farm boy, persistently and hopelessly in love with her, Cassandra spends the majority of her time marking her journal with stark observations about her world.

When two American brothers, Simon and Neil, make the family's acquaintance, Rose becomes determined to marry one of them in her ceaseless attempt to escape their life of poverty. As Cassandra deals with her father's oddities (and the fact that they have resulted in the family's need to sell furniture in order to buy food), her sister's embarrassing flirtations, and the precious, fragile murmur of a first love, her journal blooms with beautiful descriptions of the landscape in her attempt to 'capture the castle.'

I thought: The single element which truly jumped out at me when I read this book, was Smith's central character and narrator, Cassandra. Against the author's unique, classically observed descriptions of 1930's England, Cassandra's wit and sarcasm are a sharp contrast. I loved that, although as a seventeen year old girl she is somewhat naive, Cassandra acknowledges and accepts this in herself, which I found to be a very endearing characteristic. Her blunt details noted about her family are precise, and Smith similarly litters her prose with Cassandra's ideas about her feelings and those of others, which I found refreshing and often quite funny. At times, Cassandra's hunger to record absolutely everything in her journal appears childish, yet toward the end as she matures, this filters down to display her purest beliefs.

What also caught me about Smith's plot, was that it is modern in very many ways. This sounds odd, but I have read many 'classics' in which I have found it impossible to either relate to the characters or their situations in any way, shape or form. I therefore find it difficult to understand the characters and how they deal with problems and circumstances. Smith's novel however, cuts through this in the way that she created the plot, showing events (sometimes unusual or strange, but always delightfully original) which ultimately lead to the development of the characters, instead of inserting a typical happily ever after. I detest the term 'coming of age' (which age?), but I feel that, for lack of a more original description, this highlights the essence of Smith's book.

For me, I Capture the Castle is about a young woman illustrating her eccentric surroundings, and knowing the importance of thinking with your head and following your heart.

Verdict: A wonky classic. Put it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: As usual, read the book before you see the film. Conjuring Smith's descriptions through your own imagination is well worth it.

Warnings: None.

Favorite excerpts: I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.