Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

It must be the healthy air or simply the fact that during your holidays you can relax and finally get to some books you’ve neglected. Which is why I thought I’d get right into my resolutions for the second half of 2012 and kicked the list off with Dodie Smith’s classic novel. I caught the beginning of the movie a while ago and was so enchanted that I felt I would love to book. And I did. Truly, I loved it… and hated it. Here’s why:

by Dodie Smith

published: Vintage, 2004 (1948)
pages: 416
copy: paperback

my rating: 6,5/10

first sentence: I am sitting in the kitchen sink.

This enchanting novel tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her unusual family who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Cassandra’s eccentric father is a writer whose first book took the literary world by storm but he has since failed to write a single word and now spends his time reading detective fiction. Cassandra’s sister, Rose, despairs of her family’s circumstances and determines to marry their affluent American landlord. She is helped and, sometimes, hindered in this by their bohemian stepmother, an artists’ model who likes to commune with nature. Finally there is Stephen who is hopelessly in love with Cassandra. Amid this maelstrom Cassandra hones her writing skills, candidly capturing the events that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love.

Our heroine Cassandra leads us into the enchanted world of the castle she lives in with her rather eccentric family. As she writes her diary (which we read), we see just how bad poverty can get and with how little this strange family can be content. Cassandra’s thoughts and observations are surprisingly deep for a girl her age. Without any envy, she describes her older sister’s beauty, without bitterness she talks about the way her father never wrote again, after the initial success of his novel. But her life is boring and observing and trying to “capture” the people and landscapes around her is not as fulfilling as she would hope. When two young men enter the neighbourhood (very Jane Austen, isn’t it?), her life changes forever…

I was instantly feeling sympathetic towards our narrating heroine. Her family suffer but manage to creatue happiness in their very own way, and I enjoyed reading about their little routines and rituals. But Cassandra got on my nerves very quickly. Precocious – yes. Smart-ass? Not so much. The way she always sets herself apart from the group and describes, sometimes quite coldly, what is happening, made her feel cold and arrogant to me. She certainly doesn’t think too much of herself but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she considered herself a notch above everybody else – for she is the one who captures everything, who sees more than others. Or who would like to. Her flaws make her believable but personally, I just couldn’t really like her.

The plot dragged a little and felt like a soap opera at times. But the love and engagement and childish fun and unrequited love mixed with the very mature style made this a nicely balanced book. I didn’t pine for anyone, I didn’t really care who ended up with whom. But I did find myself wanting to go back to the book whenever I put it down.

It suddenly seemed astonishing that people should meet especially to eat together – because food goes into the mouth and talk comes out. And if you watch people eating and talking – really watch them – it is a very peculiar sight.

An unlikable protagonist is one thing but a whole cast of lovable, deep side characters make up for it. Rose and Topaz, Stephen (above all) and even our two gentlemen captured my heart by storm. I did care a lot about them and would have actually liked to see more of their perspectives. This being a diary, however, that wasn’t possible. I look forward to finishing the movie and I hope the focus is not so heavily set on Cassandra’s fate alone. Her coming-of-age story is certainly better than a lot of modern YA tales I’ve read but it’s far from my favorite…

THE GOOD: Concise and beautiful writing, a very different family life from what I know, in a romantic setting with a heroine full of ideas and thoughts.
THE BAD: Not really a bad point but I didn’t warm to the narrator. Which dragged the entire story down a bit.
THE VERDICT: If, like the sisters in this book, you like Austen and Bronte and can’t decided with romance you’d rather live in, you’ll probably enjoy this story. A young girl’s coming-of-age with love, betrayal, and a castle.

RATING: 6,5/10  Very good with some reservations.