My Favorite Books: 'I Capture the Castle'

This post is less of a review and more of an opportunity to gush. I recently re-read one of my top 10 favorite books of all time, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. You may know her as the author of 101 Dalmatians, but Smith’s first novel is nothing short of literary magic. My sister first introduced this book to me when I was a very young teenager; now, I read it during the springtime, because it inspires in me the same feeling that spring does: that feeling of magic and new beginnings, of everything bursting into bloom.

457340This is the story of the impoverished Mortmain family in the 1930s, living in a moldering old castle in Suffolk. I love every aspect of this novel, from the themes of growing up and getting to know oneself, to falling in love for the first time and experiencing both intense elation and the deepest heartbreak. The best part of this novel is the narrator: sparkling, charming, intelligent and self-aware Cassandra Mortmain, our 17-year-old heroine whom JK Rowling called “the most charismatic narrator [she’s] ever met.” I completely agree.

Cassandra records everything that happens in the castle in an attempt to “capture” it, hence the title. The novel is populated with these larger-than-life characters, like Cassandra’s father, a former bestselling author who hasn’t written anything in over a decade; Cassandra’s stepmother, an artist’s model named Topaz who regularly wanders around their land completely naked; and Rose, Cassandra’s older, luxury-obsessed sister who is also gentle, honest and loving.

But the best part of this book is Cassandra’s voice. She’s both very naive and very mature, and through the course of six months, her entire world is turned upside down when she and Rose meet two American men, Simon and Neil, who have inherited their estate. I love this quote from the beginning of the novel:

Rose: Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice—when Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner.

Cassandra: Mr. Bennet didn’t owe him any rent.

Cassandra and Rose start spending a lot of time with the two men, and Rose schemes to marry the elder, Simon, so she can escape genteel poverty. Cassandra helps, and it looks like everyone’s dreams have come true when Rose and Simon become engaged and Rose finds herself also, fortunately, in love with the man she said she’d marry whether or not she loved him. That is, until Cassandra falls in love with Simon herself.

Cassandra describing and experiencing her first—unrequited—love is the heart and soul of this book. I always feel her joy and her pain so acutely, especially when she says things like, “Just to be in love seemed the most blissful luxury I had ever known” and “Perhaps watching someone you love suffer can teach you even more than suffering yourself can.” Everything feels so much stronger and more intense for Cassandra because she’s in some ways extremely naive and a blank slate, and it’s made so much worse by the fact that she’s in love with her older sister’s fiancé. But you’re also very much aware that Cassandra knows her own heart and mind, that what she feels for Simon is real and not just puppy love, which makes Cassandra’s pain so much harder to bear.

“Even a broken heart doesn’t warrant a waste of good paper.”

Reading this book is like opening a window into the soul of a very kind, very funny, very warm-hearted young girl, and it’s also like reading your very own diary. Her soulful thoughts leap off the page, and I could fill up this entire post with just direct quotes from the book. My favorite is when Cassandra visits an empty church to find solace and thinks, “I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness.” Cassandra is deep, brilliant, childlike, noble, funny and kind, and she’s made this novel one of the best I’ve ever read.

So I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“I only want to write. And there’s no college for that except life.”

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May Reads & Recs

The month of May, my favorite of the year, requires some great books as an accompaniment to beautiful weather and long warm nights. Here’s what I’ll be reading this month.

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1. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith — this book is on my Top 10 Favorite Books list, and it’s my sister’s favorite book. She pushed it on me when I was about 11 years old, and I didn’t read it in full until I was about 17. It’s a true classic, written by the author of 101 Dalmatians. It’s about a 17-year-old girl, Cassandra Mortmain, whose eccentric family lives in an old castle ruin in Suffolk, England. It’s a coming-of-age story about falling in love and finding yourself. Utterly poetic and breathtakingly beautiful. This book personifies spring for me. This is a re-read, for the third time, at last count.

2. Forever, Pete Hamill — this book was also on my December book list, but it fell through the cracks. I revisit it for the third time this month. It’s about an immortal man living in New York throughout the centuries. New York + history = magic!

3. Trilby, George du Maurier — the classic story of Svengali and Trilby, which spawned the popularity of the “trilby” hat (hey, fashion!) and coined the term “Svengali” as a controlling older man.

I tend to pick books based on the time of year and how I feel at the moment. I want to read about magic and love, and apparently, mind control…? 😉 How do you pick books to read?

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#WCW: Romola Garai

I don’t know what it is with Romola Garai, but she has managed to play the main character in the film adaptations of six of my favorite books. And in her other movies she’s equally as fantastic. She’s just ugh–amazing.

I Capture the Castle

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A young Romola Garai plays Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a refurbished castle in the 1930s in England. She writes about her quirky family and about falling in love for the first time. This book reminds me of a meadow of flowers, in the best way. It’s Austenesque. And Cassandra is an insightful narrator and wonderful character.

Angel

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A dark-haired, vampy, ridiculous Romola Garai brings a new level of sympathy and childishness to one of my favorite literary antiheroes. Read the full review of one of my favorite books here.

The Crimson Petal and the White

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NEED I SAY MORE. She plays the dry-lipped, brilliant young prostitute I fell in love with many years ago. The Crimson Petal and the White is probably my favorite book of all time, and when I learned Romola Garai would be playing Sugar, I screamed a lot. It was an emotional day.

Atonement

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Okay okay, she’s the supporting actress to Keira Knightley’s top billing but still, Briony Tallis is equally as important in this novel, and much more complicated. She resurrects her bob in this movie, to my delight.

Vanity Fair

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Also a supporting actress in this one but again, she brings a level of complexity to a frankly annoying character. She plays the motherly Amelia Sedley, a kind of clueless companion to the devilish Becky Sharp, who is one of the best and worst characters in literature, and an amazing antihero.

Emma

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Yes, she played the handsome, clever, rich Emma. Romola Garai is truly the best blessing of existence. She’s also a dab hand at Shakespeare adaptations.

Check her out. I think I’ve seen 90% of her movies, and that’s modest considering how much I love her.