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.
This 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.”