Set in the 1930s in England, I Capture the Castle (1948) is Dodie Smith’s best-loved (though little-known) book, with the power to leave even twenty-five-year-old guys with a mild case of the warm fuzzies.

Be that as it may, it’s the furthest thing from sentimental. What it is, is funny, observant, quick-witted, and touching. I Capture the Castle is the journal of Cassandra Mortmain, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives with her impoverished and decidedly unconventional family: her reclusive father (who was once a very famous and groundbreaking author until he was sent to prison for three months for threatening his wife with a cake-knife), her eccentric and glamorous stepmother Topaz (who was once a nude model and still believes in “communing with nature”), her flawed but beautiful elder sister Rose (who is desperately sick of being poor), her younger brother Thomas (who is smart and doesn’t appear much in the book until the second half), and the hired hand Stephen Colly (who is extremely handsome and desperately in love with Cassandra), in a rented castle in the depths of Suffolk.

And that’s only the premise.

The plot begins when the young American heirs to the castle and its property, Simon and Neil Cotton, plus various sophisticated relations, come to England to look it over. In doing so, they run smack-bang into Cassandra having a bath. Thank goodness for screens, right? After the initial awkwardness is over, they get along swimmingly. Before long, Simon and Rose become engaged. Then Cassandra falls in love with Simon, which messes things up for her a bit. But even though she’s lovesick, she still manages to hatch a plot with her brother to get their father writing again—possibly one of the funniest scenes in the whole book.

Even when she’s in the midst of lovesickness, family rows, and a couple of embarrassing mishaps, Cassandra still manages to be level-headed and adventurous. She is sometimes naïve, sometimes astonishingly wise, but always intelligent, funny, optimistic, and unexpectedly honest.

For example, my favourite quote:

“And I regret to say that there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard.”

It’s full of stuff like that.

I Capture the Castle is often billed as a romance, but trust me, it ain’t just another love story. For one thing… aurgh, I can’t spoil the ending for you, but the ending isn’t a typical love-story ending. For another thing, it’s about so much more than that: society, sisterhood, family, growing up, being honest to yourself, and even a little bit about God.

It’s full of life, good sense and a love of England—it was written whilst Smith was waiting out the war in America, and painstakingly revised over and over again. And it shows: this is good writing. Scene after scene just leaps off the page, brought to life with characters, setting, introspection, and little gems of unconventional wisdom. Cassandra’s voice alone makes I Capture the Castle worth a read: both as a reader and as a writer. I grew so much in both these areas after reading this book.

J.K. Rowling hailed Cassandra Mortmain as “the most charismatic narrator I’ve ever met”. And trust me, when you read her story, you’ll see why. This is one of those books you’ve got to drop everything to read.

My rating: 5 stars.
Average internet rating: 4 ½ stars.

Comment

  1. RandomX2 on 24 December 2009, 00:46 said:

    You should be a marketing agent.

    Will buy now :)

  2. Un-Dante'd on 24 December 2009, 04:09 said:

    I’ll put it on my list to spend my Chapters Gift Cards on in the new year. :)

  3. Romantic Vampire Lover on 24 December 2009, 08:02 said:

    Nicely done, Steph. :D I love that book; you did it justice.

  4. Wizard of Toast on 24 December 2009, 13:19 said:

    This is one of my favourite booksof all time, and i raw-ther like how youve described it here.

  5. Pearl on 24 December 2009, 14:19 said:

    It’s now on my “to read” list.

  6. Artimaeus on 24 December 2009, 23:25 said:

    I have too much on my plate right now to pick up another book, but this looks like a great gift. I’m always looking for little known, but well-written stories.

  7. Steph (what is left) on 25 December 2009, 20:14 said:

    Thanks, guys!

    This is my favourite book of all-time; I’m glad there’re a lot of you out there who love it, too :).

    Merry Christmas!

  8. Thea on 5 January 2010, 21:37 said:

    Yay! This is one of my favorite books, and has held the position the longest. In middle school, my literature teacher lent it to me, and I knew I loved it, but I didn’t buy it until college. And it was still as good.

  9. Josette on 22 June 2010, 08:13 said:

    This was indeed a wonderful book for me. I can’t believe I had a copy of it waiting to be read after three years I bought it. I just finished it yesterday anyway and thought it a pleasant read. Very descriptive and entertaining.

    I agree with you that the part where they imprisoned their father was hilarious. I felt sorry for the guy but he had to show that he’s working!

    Loved your review!

    Josette
    http://www.booksloveme.com