Book Review: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith


I was in a store that sold used books in Alexandria, Washington, when I overheard a woman telling her friends about this particular book. “It’s such a wonderful story!” she said. “Why, what’s it about?” asked her friends curiously. The woman was stroking the cover of the book affectionately. Anyone who professes such love for a book immediately piques my interest in it, so I wandered closer to the group of friends, pretending to take an interest in the shelf of medieval poetry books opposite them as I listened attentively to what the woman had to say.

“It’s about this girl and her family. They’re poor, but they live in a castle, and she writes about her life in a diary…and oh, I don’t know. It’s such a beautiful book.”

Not exactly a review that sheds light on the subject matter of the story, but there was something about the tone of her voice and the way she was looking at it. She loved this book intensely. I know you can like books, admire books and even worship them, to a degree, but to love a book the way this woman obviously loved this one is something that I don’t see every day.

She was going to buy the copy, I just knew it, and if there wasn’t another copy (very unlikely, since used bookstores generally only have one copy of each book, perhaps two) I was going to be out of luck, because she hadn’t spoken the title of the book out loud and I couldn’t read it from afar. All I could tell was that it was green. I could have just asked the woman for the title of the book, of course, but that would be admitting I was eavesdropping and I suddenly felt terribly shy at the prospect of admitting I was overhearing this woman profess her deep and personal love for this book to her friends.

Then something miraculous happened. One of the woman’s friends took a look at the book and said, “Oh, I have that book back home. It belonged to my mother’s. You can have it if you’d like.” And the woman’s face lit up, and I took a deep breath of relief when I saw her put the green book back on the shelf. A minute later they left the store and of course the first thing I did was rush over to take the book before anyone else did the same.

It was titled, ‘I Capture the Castle’, by Dodie Smith. I’ve never heard of it before, and there wasn’t anything that necessarily attracted me to it. But the way the woman had talked about it… I had to have it. I had to see what it was all about.

It is three days later, I’m back in my home country, and I’ve finished it.

And I can say I understand now.

This is one of those books that you’ll remember for the rest of your life… not because the plot is particularly gripping or you can’t put it down or because it’s enlightening or revelatory or anything like that. It’s because it’s deeply real, deeply human, and thus, deeply touching.

Cassandra is a sixteen or seventeen year old girl living in a castle in the english countryside in the 1920’s (1930’s maybe?) with her depressed and angry big sister, her artistically pretentious stepmother, her quiet little brother, her distant father who’s been suffering from writer’s block for the past 12 years, and Stephen, the son of the deceased caretaker. Since her father hasn’t been able to write a single line for the past decade, they all live in poverty. All they eat is bread, margarine, and vegetables… and Cassandra describes it in her journal, she herself being happy and quite unconcerned about the whole poverty affair.

Her big sister, Rose, isn’t. She hates being poor, she hates the fact that they live in a castle separate from the rest of the world, she hates that her chances of getting married are slim at best. And so one day, she decides to sell her soul to the devil. Literally. She prays upon a gargoyle, which Cassandra notices looks more like an angel from some angles, and two days later a wealthy pair of brothers show up. They have inherited a house near the castle, and their arrival changes everything.

Through the rest of the book we see Cassandra coming into her own and realizing that life isn’t just happiness and fun, seeing as she goes through the heartbreaking process of falling in love with someone who doesn’t love her back. Through all of it, Rose comes to terms with the bad decisions she has made in her life, her stepmother and father go through marital problems, and her father struggles to materialize the sporadic bouts of inspiration he’s been having lately.

I can’t say much more for fear of spoiling the story, but what I can say is that this isn’t a novel with your typical happy ending. Instead, we get a real-life type of ending, which in a way is much more satisfying, at least to me. Even if I did shed a tear or two.

What I really liked about this book was how Cassandra comes to life. It really feels like you’re reading her journal, like you’re entering her thoughts and dreams, her sadness and her joys… and Cassandra isn’t an ordinary girl. She sees things differently, feels more deeply, catches things that other people would have missed. This could be a blessing, and it could also be a curse. People who feel more deeply are always bound to suffer.

Do I love this book? It hasn’t sunk in enough yet for me to decide. I only just finished it last night. But I keep thinking back on some wonderful passages of it, and keep making connections between the characters and thinking the little things I have in common with them and the things they have in common with people I know… and I just might come to love it, once it has made its full impact on me. I certainly won’t forget it for some time to come, at any rate.

However, I can definitely state one thing. This is “a beautiful book”, just like the woman at the used bookstore said.

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