Seventeen-year-old Cassandra lives in an old, broken-down castle with her family. They are very poor and live mostly off the charity of others, but their lives change when new neighbors move into their late landlord’s home next door. The book is written by Cassandra in a series of diary entries over about six months.
This was a fairly good book, though I didn’t love it the way many people seem to. The diary format has never really worked for me. I find it far too unrealistic and get distracted by that disbelief as I read. I Capture the Castle has the distinction of being the only book I’ve read written in diary format that I didn’t downright loathe, and I did manage to forget at times and read the prose as if it were normal narration instead of a falsified, unrealistic journal. I’m glad Smith was able to push me beyond that hang-up, because I enjoyed the story of this one.
It’s a coming of age book, and deals with romances and intrigues and the workings of a family. Actually it reminded me quite a lot of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is one of my favorite books and one I’ve read multiple times over the years. Both families are very poor, and their circumstances change through events outside their control. Both families are very tight-knit and close. Both Francie and Cassandra are writers and literary-minded. Both of their fathers are either unable to or refuse to provide for their families. It’s interesting, the fathers. Francie’s father Johnny tries and tries to provide, but has a major drinking problem he can’t overcome. Cassandra’s father, in my opinion, is simply lazy. He wrote a book years ago that got him money for awhile, and since then he’s never done anything else. He accepted years ago that he would never write again, but rather than get another job to provide for his family, he’s willing to let his late servant’s son provide for the family, as well as working in the castle for free, while Dad sits around reading detective novels all day long. I hated him with a passion for his laziness and refusal to take care of his family, while I only felt sorry for Johnny, who tried to provide but failed. At least he tried. Cassandra’s dad didn’t care enough and would have seen his family starve before he bothered to work. He was also very violent and emotionally unstable.
One of the big differences between the two books, and this is something I’ve noticed in several British coming-of-age classics, is the seeming age level of the narrator. Cassandra is seventeen for most of the book, and passes her eighteenth birthday, but she sounds no older than thirteen at any point in her story. I noticed that too in books such as Daddy Long Legs, which had a twenty-ish narrator who sounded twelve. I used to think that perhaps culture had just changed dramatically since those classic YA novels, or perhaps that authors simply had a very skewed perception of what teens were really like, because I can’t imagine any late teen being as young, naive, and silly as the narrators I tend to see in classic YA. But then I remembered A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I started to wonder – perhaps it’s a cultural difference between the US and the UK instead (in classics, of course, not modern fiction)? Because Francie is eleven for most of her narration and she sounds far older than Cassandra. By the time Francie is fifteen, she sounds well into adulthood. She sounds exactly what I would expect from a pre-teen and teenager, and I wonder if that’s just because of a cultural difference, either in the way teens were in that time period, or the way authors perceived them.
I admit, the super-young-sounding narrator really bothers me, which I’m sure everyone could tell from when I read Daddy Long Legs. It was another obstacle I had to overcome in reading I Capture the Castle. But I found that if I thought of Cassandra as a young teen instead of a near-adult, I could tolerate the tone just fine. And since all the other characters treated her as if she were a little kid (only barely old enough to possibly attend a dinner party!), it felt okay to adjust my perception a little. It certainly helped me to enjoy the book more.
I know this sounds like I didn’t like the book much, but I did. All the obstacles that stood in the way of liking it were ones that I managed to overcome, and I did end up enjoying the story, especially the way it ended. Dodie Smith does an excellent job of sketching out the other characters, and I was particularly fond of Cassandra’s stepmom, Topaz. So often in books, the stepmom (or stepdad) ends up being a bad guy, but Topaz wasn’t like that. She was weird, yes, but that was just part of her character. She loved the three kids even though they weren’t hers, and she did what she could to provide for them. I think she really made the book for me.