I Capture the Castle // by Dodie Smith

//published 1948//

This is one of those books that I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to reading it.  The title seems to crop up on all kinds of list of “books everyone should read,” and I’ve never read a negative review of it anywhere.  Plus, The Hundred and One Dalmatians is literally one of my favorite books of all time.

If you’re like me, and have somehow reached adulthood without discovering this book, it is about a family living in a run-down castle (in England, of course; we are sadly bereft of castles in the States) between the wars.  Cassandra is our narrator, and the entire book is actually her diary, which she begins in March of the year that she is 17.  Cassandra lives with her father, who wrote a famous book (but hasn’t written anything else since); her stepmother, who is a model for painters and an artist herself; her older sister, Rose (the “beautiful” sister); and her younger brother, Thomas.  The family is becoming rather desperately poor, as Father doesn’t do much besides read detective novels and work crossword puzzles.  Rose is especially discontented with their poverty, and the complete lack of eligible young men.

But everything changes for the Mortmain family when new neighbors arrive – including two handsome (and eligible) brothers.  Rose sets her cap for the oldest, since he’s the one with the money, and the story unfolds from there.  It’s not a book with a fast pace or one that you want to gulp down in big sections, but rather a gentle tale that unfolds at the perfect pace.  I always wanted to know what was going to happen next, but never so much so that I couldn’t take the time to savor Smith’s excellent writing.

All in all, Cassandra is a delight, and I loved getting to know her through her writing.  She definitely felt her age, a mixture of confidence and hesitancy, worldly knowledge and naivety, self-awareness and complete unawareness.  I completely fell in love with her family, especially her stepmother, Topaz, who was probably my favorite character in the whole book.

Still, I couldn’t give this book a full 5* rating, although it did garner 4 from me quite easily.  I felt like the story really bogged down once Cassandra fell in love.  I grew rather bored with the hash and rehash of her feelings.  People being in love is my #1 reason for not liking first-person perspectives.  Can anything be more dull than listening to someone else try to explain (at length) a feeling that can never be explained?  Yes, yes, I get it, he’s amazing, you can’t describe how you feel, so please stop trying.

I also did not personally care for the ending, as I prefer endings to be unambiguously happy, and this one, while not unhappy, still definitely had some open endings with no promise of how they would play out in the future.

This book has been on my radar for many a year, although it was Lady Fancifull’s excellent review that made me actually add it to the TBR, leading to actually getting read!  It does appear that Smith has written some other novels, so I may give one of them a whirl.  While I Capture the Castle did not become an instant classic for me, it was excellently written and very pleasurable reading.  Definitely recommended.