I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
This first novel by a sometime playwright whose full name was Dorothy Gladys Beesely (maiden name Smith) comes highly recommended by no less than J. K. Rowling herself. Fans of children's literature have the additional incentive of seeing what kind of grown-up book the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians
could make. And film buffs should be excited to see the recent movie from this book, starring Henry Thomas and the stunning Romola Garai.
The narrator is seventeen- or eighteen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, speed-writing in her diary. What a Romantic name, right? But she is a very modern girl (for about 1948), considering that she lives in a ruined castle. Her father is a writer who hasn't written a word since his daring and successful first novel, years ago. Her stepmother is an artist's model named Topaz who likes to commune with nature in the nude. She has a gorgeous older sister named Rose, a bright but underfed schoolboy brother named Thomas, and a stunningly handsome live-in family servant named Stephen who worships the ground she walks on.
But the family is dirt poor. They have no income, except what Stephen brings in from his "day job" as a farm laborer, and later, from modeling for an art photographer who thinks he has a shot at being "on the pictures." The Mortmains manage to live by not paying their small annual rent on the castle, growing some of their own food, and a little modeling work that Topaz still does. Rose is getting particularly desperate, because she hates to be so poor and she is frustrated at not being able to meet men so that she can get married.
Things start looking up when the young Cotton brothers from America take over the estate of which the castle is a part. The older brother, Simon, is an intellectual who admires their father's work. The younger brother, Neil, is more of a would-be California rancher who sees right through Rose when she sets her sights on marrying Simon for money. It all ends up being a very confusing and painful chain of unrequited love-Rose pursued by Simon, who loves her passionately; Simon adored by Cassandra; Cassandra worshiped by Stephen; Stephen lusted after by the art photographer; and exciting, passionate Neil thrown in to stir things up.
It doesn't end the way romantic fiction usually does. But on the way to that ending you get to enjoy a scintillating narrative told by a bright, appealing narratrix. Cassandra puts up with no nonsense-usually-from herself, especially. But the complexities of love baffle and torment her-both being loved and not being able to love back, and loving someone who cannot love her. Sometimes you will hold your breath and cross your fingers, sometimes be overwhelmed with melancholy as you read this charming, surprising book.
Recommended Age: 12+
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