I found the book I was looking for—the something light that would reverse my recent trend of reading books that, though wonderful, are heavy for one reason or another.
Cassandra Mortmain is seventeen years old and begins to keep a journal to practice her writing. Writing is in her genes. Her father is renowned as a literary genius, although he wrote only one book and that was far too many years ago. Since then (and after the death of her mother), Cassandra’s family has fallen into poverty. Extreme poverty. That’s the crux of their dilemma.
The family consists of Cassandra, her beautiful but embittered/resigned older sister Rose, her smart young schoolboy brother Thomas, her stepmother Topaz, who is an artist’s model with a strange pale beauty and a palette of unconventional behaviors, and an orphaned servant of sorts named Stephen, who is two years older than Cassandra. Stephen has the looks of a Greek god and is deeply in love with Cassandra. And finally, Cassandra’s father lives with them, but he spends his days in the gatehouse- not writing. They live in a rundown English castle, spared paying rent by the generosity and then death of the owner. At the opening of Cassandra’s journal, they are essentially out of options. All their saleable furniture has been sold. Rose, in desperation, offers to sell her soul to the devil, and although the others treat it as a joke, the family’s very real need dampens the humor.
And then, things change. The heir to the castle, Simon Cotton, arrives from America with his brother Neil. They are, to Cassandra’s delight, very nice men. To Rose’s excitement, Simon is now a wealthy man. To no one’s surprise, Rose sets her sights on marrying him. And so, the relationship shifting begins. Although this is Cassandra’s coming-of-age story, she records for us how everyone in her sphere is changed.
I love these kinds of books—books that are written as journals or letters—when the author is able to truly capture the protagonist’s voice. Cassandra comes alive in this novel. She is witty, poignant, and extraordinarily real. Wise beyond her years, too old to be precocious, and straddling that line between childhood and adulthood, Cassandra lets go of her "conscious naivete" (early on, she is accused by Simon of being consciously naive) bit by bit. Her observations about life are amusing one moment and heart-twistingly poignant the next.
Cassandra embraces every experience and every emotion. The pages are filled with the buoyant hopes and crushing disappointments familiar to anyone who has ever been young. She delights in learning new things—the differences between Americanisms and Englishisms jump off the pages seen through her eyes. Her simple joy in the food she gets to eat after a long period of famine, of the chance to explore London with her sister, of lying in the sun on a warm day, may not be high drama, but in Cassandra’s beautiful style, the events of the day are captivating nevertheless.
As you read, you begin to realize that there is a lot more going on in the book than seems present on the surface. This is not a straight-forward love story. In Cassandra’s frank, open voice, Dodie Smith touches on art, literature, music, class inequality, religion, and psychology (the father is quite a piece of work). However, Cassandra does fall in love.
Since 1948, readers have been falling in love with Cassandra (and falling in love along with Cassandra most likely. This book has three men who are easily more deserving of the title romantic hero than Heathcliff-bleh.) If you want to read something beautiful, find a copy of I Capture the Castle.