I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
I have been meaning to read this book for some time, and was spurred on by several references that Kristen has made to it in the past few months. (I would claim that I also picked it up because the author also wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the book upon which my son’s favorite movie is based, but I have to admit that despite seeing Dodie Smith’s name in the credits as often as I do, I didn’t make that connection until I glanced at the author bio in the back of the book. Movie recognition fail.)
This book hit me in a funny way that I can’t quite describe. I was pre-disposed to like it based on what I’d heard about it and also the fact that I approve of plots that resemble Austen in general. (People often mistake Jane Austen books for romantic comedies, which is true to some extent, but that misses the HUGE undercurrent of the do-or-die struggle that is the Regency marriage game.) And I did enjoy it, but it went deeper than that.
The Mortmain family is living out their 40-year lease of an old castle which has fallen and continues to fall into disrepair. They are in a state of not-so-genteel poverty, although the grinding hopelessness of their situation doesn’t really crash down on the reader as it might because it is held at bay by the wonderful personality that is the narrator, Cassandra Mortmain. Can I just say that I love her? I love her in the way you love a sister or a best friend (or, occasionally, yourself), who you cheer for and laugh with and who makes you tear your hair out when they do really stupid things that you can’t save them from and which you know they are better than. I loved her voice, the way she frequently stops to take stock of herself and her feelings, and her determination to be fully honest with herself in the journals she’s keeping.
Cassandra’s older sister, Rose, out of desperation, determines to marry strictly for money. I get this. I remember a time during law school when my husband and I did the calculations and said unless something can change and soon, this is the day we will run out of money. It’s a terrifying, suffocating feeling, and you get just enough glimpses of it through the lens of Cassandra’s plucky (but not foolish) optimism to forgive Rose for deciding to do whatever it takes to never be in that situation again. And for the record, I like Rose a lot better than I ever liked Scarlett O’Hara, who made a similar vow.
I had more problems with Mr. Mortmain, the father of the family. For reasons I (and the other characters) can’t quite fathom, Mr. Mortmain fritters away his time and talents NOT writing his second book for years as his family sinks farther and farther into the above-mentioned poverty. I was frustrated that he could be as callously oblivious as he seemed to be to his family’s bleak situation. (Although I have to confess that from the descriptions of the book he wrote, I wouldn’t want to read it myself.)
The rest of the cast of characters are worthy of this book in every way. Dodie Smith has a gift for characterization that makes you feel as though you know these people, or might run into them at any moment.
The book was extremely well written, and I loved reading it. I’m not sure that I liked finishing it, though. In order to explain, I may need to get ever-so-slightly SPOILER-y, although I won’t give away any main plot details.
This book wormed its way into my heart, and I wanted nothing more than good things for Cassandra especially. I wanted her to be happy. And in the end, it felt like I hadn’t quite gotten that for her, and had to settle for her being smart instead, with the hope that happiness would follow sometime in the future. The ending was almost devastatingly effective for me, rather like a kick to the gut, in that even though it was a good ending as far as being hopeful and as far as the welfare of the characters was concerned, I felt every bit of the ache that Cassandra must have been feeling, and it stayed with me long after I finished. It’s taken me a few days to come to terms with it and write the review.
That being said, the book was absolutely worth that kick in the gut. I’m not sure how soon I’ll want to re-read it, knowing what’s coming (because who likes being kicked all the time?), but I’m betting it will eventually go into my re-read roster.
Let me reiterate that it’s really not a depressing book and that nobody gets eaten by the eels at this (or any other) time. But if you tend to fall into deep smit with fictional characters and live their lives vicariously, be warned that this one is going to be a bit of a ride.
In short, this book truly was extraordinary. I’ll be feeling it in my bones for a long time to come. Five stars.