Friday, 21 November 2014

Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Vintage book cover of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Somehow I wasn't even aware of the existence of I Capture the Castle until Laura's review earlier this year... although now I reread that, she didn't know about it until she was 20 either. Huh. Anyway, apparently it's one of those staple classics that every woman should read (aside from the fact that neither Laura nor I 'stapled' it until we were 25)... but I'll be honest. I don't get it.

Plot summary: Cassandra Mortmain lives with her bohemian and impoverished family in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere. She records her life with her beautiful, bored sister, Rose, her fadingly glamorous stepmother, Topaz, her little brother, Thomas, and her eccentric novelist father who suffers from a financially crippling writer's block. However, all their lives are turned upside down when the American heirs to the castle arrive and Cassandra finds herself falling in love for the first time.

I know, I'm sorry. I really wanted to like this one, especially as I know it's so universally loved and I occasionally do like books, you know. It just read to me like an older, longer and more tedious version of Little Women.

This book had its good points. It absolutely did. My review notebook doesn't quite enlighten me as to what they were and I'm a month behind with reviews, so I can't remember myself... but I'm sure it did. Probably. My lasting memory of I Capture the Castle is of beautiful prose but not a whole lot of actual content.

It's a very character-driven novel, which is I usually quite like. Unfortunately the characters are alternately flat and lifeless, or so annoying I want to shake them. Combining the two is quite a feat. It's told using a first person narrative as we're theoretically reading Cassandra's diary... so how is it possible that I feel I don't know her at all? I may as well have been reading the minutes of my dentist appointment it's so abnormally clinical.

My problem, character-wise, is that we're told to like somebody and then suddenly told not to like them, but by other characters. We're never shown their true personalities so we can make up our own minds, thus it feels a little bit convoluted at times. Cassandra changes her mind about people so often that the other personalities never get chance to stabilise.

However, the prose is beautiful and there are some lovely passages. There's one where Cassandra talks about how she imagines scenarios in her head but then grows to rely on them to get her through the day, which is something I think a lot of teenagers do. I don't find her to be at all relatable on the whole, but this particular quote kind of resonated with me:

Rose came in while Simon was kissing me and was absolutely livid - or was that a later imagining? There have been so many that they have gradually merged into each other. I don't think I could bring myself to describe any of them in detail because, though they are wonderful at the time, they give me a flat, sick, ashamed feeling to look back on. And they are like a drug, one needs them oftener and oftener and has to make them more and more exciting - until at last one's imagination won't work at all.
Most of it, however, was simultaneously boring and melodramatic. I found the first half to be much more interesting than the second half, because it does start to drag towards the end. I felt that the entire point of the novel was lost as it tried to follow too many different paths at the same time. The actual ending made me want to push Cassandra off an extra large cliff as I really can't stand self-imposed martyrdom.

I kind of feel like I should apologise for not liking this book and I'm not really sure why. I know it's loved by an awful lot of people but it's just not for me. The flat and irritating characters plus a rambling plot just didn't add up to something I could 'click' with. I think I'll stick to Little Women.

Read Laura's more positive review of I Capture the Castle at Devouring Texts. 


  1. Awww, I loved this one. I saw the movie first, as a teenager, then read the book, and loved the fact that Cassandra was a bookish, slightly eccentric, romantic dreamer like me. I always fall for characters who make me feel like I'm not quite so hopeless after all. :)

  2. Oh Hanna, you old cynic you! I still maintain that I would have loved this beyond all reason if I'd read it as a teen, but I still kind of love it plenty- it's just so sweet and lovely and ROSE IS SUCH A BITCH RIGHT?!

    Ahem. Anyway, I suspect I'm not going to talk you round, but I just want to restate my love for I Capture the Castle haha

    1. Haha, yeah, Rose is pretty awful... yet I still liked her more than Cassandra. So judgemental - "Oh Rose, that's perfectly HORRID!" *snooty voice*

      I liked Topaz though :)

  3. I think I read this when I was an early teen (I forget exactly when), and then I remember being obsessed with the film because there was a relatively handsome chap in it. I know I loved the book back then, but I'd be interested to see how it would fare if I read it again now.


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