Thursday, May 2, 2013

Book Review: I Capture the Castle

I just finished a delightful novel by Dodie Smith, the author of two of my childhood favorites: The 101 Dalmatians and The Starlight Barking.

Set in the 1930s, I Capture the Castle is the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who lives in a crumbling English castle with her quirky family. Cassandra is an aspiring writer. The story is told in the form of her journal in which she introduces us to her father, the eccentric author of a groundbreaking debut novel who now suffers from chronic writer's block, and her stepmother, Topaz, a renowned artist's model who loves communing with nature au naturel. Older sister, Rose, weary of poverty and isolation, longs to be a character in a Jane Austen novel. Younger brother Thomas (who is, like Cassandra, thought to be "tolerably bright"), Stephen, the son of the Mortmains' late housekeeper, who plagiarizes poetry in an effort to win Cassandra's love, and a dog and a cat known as Heloise and Abelard, round out the family.

clip art from
The lively shenanigans of the Mortmain sisters keep the story bouncing along. Cassandra gets caught in the bath by the newly arrived Americans, after having dyed herself green. Rose wears a fur coat and poses as a bear in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid embarrassment. Cassandra goes to Belmotte Tower on Midsummer's Eve to conduct an arcane ritual of her own devising, and later masterminds a diabolical plan in hopes of forcing Father to resume writing. But as the story progresses, one thing becomes undeniable: Cassandra is falling in love with her sister's husband-to-be.

Here's a conversation in which Simon offers his opinion on who the Mortmain girls would be if they were paintings:

"Rose is a Romney," said Simon. "She's quite a bit like Lady Hamilton.... And Cassandra's a Reynolds, of course--the little girl with the mousetrap." 

"I'm not!" I said indignantly. "I hate that picture. The mouse is terrified , the cat's hungry and the girl's a cruel little beast. I refuse to be her."

"Ah, but you'd let the mouse out of the trap and find a nice dead sardine for the cat," said Simon. I began to like him a little better.

Girl With a Mousetrap, Joshua Reynolds
And here are some of Cassandra's musings:

On writing habits:

I am writing this in the attic .... I don't intend to let myself become the kind of author who can only work in seclusion--after all, Jane Austen wrote in the sitting-room and merely covered up her work when a visitor called (though I bet she thought a thing or two)--but I am not quite Jane Austen yet, and there are limits to what I can stand.

On may-blossoms:

I set a lot of store by may--I once spent hours trying to describe a single blossom of it, but I only managed "Frank-eyed floweret, kitten-whiskered," which sticks in your throat like fish-bones.

On frugality:

I could easily go on writing all night but I can't really see and it's extravagant on paper, so I shall merely think. Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.

I Capture the Castle isn't a children's book, but it reminds me of my favorite sort of middle grade novel. It's exuberant, character-driven, and brimming with voice.

A film adaptation came out in 2003. I haven't seen it yet, but it's on my list of movies to watch.

For another opinion, check out this fantastic review by The Dreamstress.


Becky said...

I just ordered a sample of this for my Kindle, Ruth. Thank you so much for the recommendation--it looks great! = )

Ruth Donnelly said...

Hope you enjoy it, Becky!

Anonymous said...

I really liked the book, too. It strikes me as Smith's 20th-century update of a typical Jane Austen story — The two destitute young women with no family fortune, no social standing and no romantic prospects. To find men, they had to either go visit someone in the big city or have the prospects come to them. Cassandra and Rose got to do both! And there was even a dance/ball. At times, it's a cross between "Sense & Sensibility" and "Lavern & Shirley.” The ending was a bit too 20th century for the Austenian world, but it was nice to see Cassandra making some wise decisions at last.


Ruth Donnelly said...

Eileen, I think "Sense & Sensibility meets Laverne and Shirley" is the perfect logline. Missed you at the book club meeting!