As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

January 1, 2011

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith, 1948

I Capture the Castle
I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle's walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has "captured the castle"--and the heart of the reader--in one of literature's most enchanting entertainments. (Amazon product description)

A shared review by Amy Finnegan and Jessica Day George (Why did Amy and Jessica decide to do a shared review for this novel? 1) It's our New Year's gift to you - sharing this all-but-forgotten classic, which is an all time favorite for BOTH of us. 2) This novel was one of the reasons we started Bookshop Talk, and 3) we would've had to fight to the death for the honor of reviewing it on our own.)

Amy's Review:

Ah, where do I begin? The first lines, I suppose, which is where I fell head over heels in love with this book. They go like this:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cozy.”

I know of no other novel that begins in the kitchen sink, do you? But for our narrator, Cassandra, this is the absolute best place to start her story. “Sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring,” she tells us. “I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house.”

The first paragraph of this book is one of my very favorite literary gems. Even on its own, it tells enough about Cassandra to make me wish she was my best friend. But then . . . THEN . . . her readers are fortunate enough to hear the rest of this enchanting story.

What one learns right away is that Cassandra doesn’t live in the same sort of castle that we read about in fairy tales. She lives amid ruins that once made up a castle, and still, her father hasn’t been able to pay the rent for over two years. Why? Because the poor fellow is a famous author who once wrote a ground-breaking novel—much discussed in higher literary circles—and has failed to pen a single word since.

And every castle needs a step-mother, no? Cassandra introduces her as such: “She is a famous artist’s model who claims to have been christened Topaz—even if this is true, there is no law to make a woman stick to a name like that.” This step-mother, however, is hardly wicked. Topaz is lovely, kind, and sensible—despite her naked romps in the rain—and practically ethereal whenever she’s in a scene. She bears the family’s burdens, as well as her broody husband, with the patience of a saint in the midst of a famine.

But Cassandra’s older sister, Rose, really needs a good slap once in a while. Then there’s a younger brother, Thomas, with a clever, solid head on his shoulders. And sweet, devoted Steven, an impossibly beautiful eighteen-year-old boy who has lived with Cassandra’s family since he was a young boy. Steven is so desperately in love with Cassandra that on every page, you’re practically begging her to turn around and just kiss the poor guy. He’s bound to stop breathing if she doesn’t!

Then, enter the American brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton. The charming English countryside is a rather new experience for them, and they change everything.

My favorite scene between the girls and the Cotton brothers involves a serious case of mistaken identity—of the animal nature—pitchforks, shrieking, slapping . . . and a bit of something else.

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is a story that’s all about the characters, so don’t expect a grand, sweeping plot. But there’s actually quite a bit more going on than Cassandra realizes until the end.

Romantics eat this novel for breakfast (I eat it for lunch and dinner as well). For writers, this novel is a must read as a master class in “voice.” As my all-time favorite author, J.K. Rowling, once said about I CAPTURE THE CASTLE: “This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I’ve ever met.”

Cassandra Mortmain is so real, I could swear I know her personally. I desperately wish that I did.

The one negative thing to be said: there is no sequel to this novel, so you, along with the millions of other readers who have been captured by it, will be left to dream up the rest of Cassandra’s story . . . you won’t be able to stop yourself.

Jessica's Review:

Cassandra Mortmain is attempting to capture the castle in which she lives, not physically, but in words.  But how to capture the sunlight on the tower?  Or the chill of the moat, fed from some sort of glacial underground stream that makes it impossibly cold even in the height of summer?  How to truly capture her dramatic sister Rose, clever brother Thomas, or enigmatic father?  Cassandra does her best, in a book that is filled with words, and about words . . . in short, a writer’s book.  Cassandra is such a charming character, you simply yearn for her to be your best friend.  She knows just enough about the world, and men, to know that she doesn’t know anything about the world, and men.  As the book progresses, you can see Cassandra learning and growing, as a person and a writer, and it’s a quiet, delicate thrill.

To me this book is sheer perfection.  Each character is unique, yet they hang together as beautifully as the tapestries that have been sold (along with all the furniture) to keep body and soul together.  The newcomers are introduced at just the right moment with just the right amount of drama.  Rose sets out to marry the wealthy Simon like a girl out of a Victorian romance (all she knows of the world), and somehow this is less ludicrous than perfect considering her character and that of her family.  It is all, as I’ve said: perfect, even the ending which is full of surprises that are still just one tiny, gorgeous bit of this intricate, delicate work.

Market: Adult Fiction
Language: Mild
Sensuality: Mild/Moderate. Nothing descriptive
Violence: Mild
Mature Themes: poverty, gold-digging by way of marriage, hints of affairs, depression

I Capture the CastleExtra Fun: There is a really well done movie based on this novel that you can find here: I Capture the Castle. It's a good adaptation and a great cast, but the producers/writers made a rather daft decision and turned a barely PG-13 book into an R-rated movie. The culprit: a brief comment made in the book about Topaz communing with nature by running naked in rainstorms. They put that in the film - just the top half of her, and it's so brief and dark that I'm still surprised the movie got an R rating - but that's Hollywood for you.


Misty said...

I ADORE ICTC! A friend on Goodreads recommended it to me, and she pegged it. So perfectly zany and awesome!

Amy Finnegan {} said...

Isn't it crazy that so few people have even heard of this book, let alone read it? So sad!! It's the best!

Kim said...

I LOVE this book!!!!!!!!!!!! One of my all time favorites.

Gabby said...

This book is amazing! I'm always loaning out my copy to friends trying to share it's awesomeness. I would recommend this book to teenagers and adults alike.

Dani said...

Wow! What a fun site! I love to read and am always looking for a good book. I just spent who knows how many hours reading a new book that turned out to be a waste of time; I was so disappointed. I will definitely be coming here to get ideas for "older" gems to read. I found your site from "The Idea Room" and I would love to win a copy of this one. I've never heard of it before but it sounds interesting!


Rosebriars said...

I am officially putting this book on my Amazon Christmas wishlist before having read it.

And she wrote 101 Dalmatians?! I must also read that...I ironically already have an audiobook copy of her 101 Dalmatians on hold at the library. So excited, hope it comes before the great Christmas migration so we can listen in the van!