Reader’s Journal: I Capture the Castle

For years, I was what you might call an Ambitious Beach Reader. I say “for years,” but really there were only two–two summers, to be exact–where Bob and I visited the Gulf shores of Florida with any regularity. On our way to locate our spot for the day, we’d pass by veteran beach-goers thumbing through their sensible stacks of tacky tabloids, their disposable Dean Koontz, or the latest Jackie Collins. People who’ve vacationed at the beach every year since they were children know better than to take along anything else. For one thing, your book is bound to get wet, torn, or crumpled, no matter how careful you might be. For another thing, the point of the beach is to enjoy the waves, sand, and sun–not to act as though you’re sitting in a library carrel.

For my irregular, short-lived, beach-reading habits, I blame both myself and Ann Patchett. I blame myself because I tend to be a book snob, with no good reason. Really, with no good rhyme or reason, is more like it. A lot of the time, I simply won’t read a book because it’s popular. If millions of people are reading it, how good can it be? Likewise, I won’t read books because they are cool and very few people read them (title for possible doctoral thesis: “Pynchon: What’s the Point?”). I blame Ann Patchett because right around the time we started our beach habit, I read Bel Canto. After I read Bel Canto, I had to read everything Ann Patchett had ever written, along with every author interview I could find. I remember that in one interview in particular, she called out three books that influenced her: Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

(What about I Capture the Castle?, you’re wondering. I’m getting there. Noticed I changed the title of this “series” from “Book Review Saturday,” which was stuffy and misleading, to “Reader’s Journal,” which means that in addition to hearing about the book, you have to hear about me…but not too much, I promise. Just me and books.)

Being even more random and impulsive in my book-buying habits than I am in my perfume-buying habits, I set out the day before one of our beach trips to buy The Big Sleep, which seemed the most logical choice for beach reading, but it was nowhere to be found in local bookstores, and I didn’t have time to order it online. I already owned Pale Fire (I’d half-read half of it for a class once), and copies of The Magic Mountain were readily available, so I bought one and off I went. (Mann also wrote Death in Venice, which always makes me think of Annie Hall: “You were always buying me books with the word ‘death’ in the title.”)

Okay, okay, long story short: I toted each of these to the beach through two summers and never finished either of them. Pale Fire was actually not a bad beach read until I got to the part that’s all notes. I tore the cover and the pages got bent in the beach bag, and the bookmark is where I left it three years ago. The Magic Mountain? Really, what better beach-read is there than a 700-page tome in tiny print about a group of people in a sanatorium at the turn of the nineteenth century? (I should mention here that sunscreen smudges ink rather easily.) Why I remained so stubborn about reading those books at the beach, I’ll never know. I should’ve tried harder to get my hands on a copy of The Big Sleep, or else just taken along a drool cup, as most of the time we were there I just sat, open-mouthed and half-asleep, staring at the white sand and crystal waters.

All of this explanation so I can tell you: If I were going to the beach this summer, I Capture the Castle would have been a wonderful book to take along, for several reasons: First of all, this book is just the right mix of unknown and literary without being too high-brow or too cool, but it’s also wonderfully fun; and second of all, this book would be wonderful to read anywhere–the beach, by a fire, on a car trip, at the office. Okay, maybe not at the office. Maybe just at lunch.

My mother sent her copy to me, and I’ve since sent it back and bought my own so I can read it again. I could have read her copy a second time, but it’s the kind of book that when you read it, you know you should return it immediately to its rightful owner so that she can read it again as well, because once she knows you’ve read it and loved it, she’ll have to.

I Capture the Castle tells the story of Cassandra Mortmain, who lives in part of a decrepit castle with her family and…this is the part I hate: the plot summary. It never does a book justice, especially one you love. Written in the first person, the book contains the journals of Cassandra Mortmain, an aspiring writer, who tells the story of how her family changes over the course of one remarkable summer. Coming-of-age-story blah blah blah. The most enchanting thing of all is Cassandra’s voice–she simply seems so real to me that I kept forgetting I was not reading an actual memoir or journal. I was engaged by this book the same way I was engaged by A Girl Named Zippy, by a voice so unique and true that she could tell the story of the ages and it would be fascinating not because of the story but because of the telling. Cassandra’s family is poor and somewhat eccentric. (Her father is a Joycean-style novelist who wrote one critically acclaimed book and has now stopped writing; her stepmother is a former artist’s model who speaks in dramatic baritones and regularly stalks the countryside wearing nothing but Wellies. I kept alternately casting Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton in this role, even though a movie’s already been made. I haven’t seen it, probably won’t.) Their lives change when the landlords who own the castle return from America to their estate nearby. Dodie Smith (best known for 101 Dalmations…how can you not love the writer who created Cruella De Ville?) published this novel in 1946, just after the war. Although the story itself takes place in the 1930s (an era for which I have a weakness), I can’t help but wonder at the parallel between the Americans entering the war, and Simon and Neil coming to Scoatney from America and forever changing the Mortmains’ lives; probably there’s not one, but it’s interesting to consider.

Anyway, I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, if you get the chance. You will be drawn into Cassandra’s view of the world, and what a charming and often funny view it is! The movie release a few years back put the book into circulation again. I found a copy at my local bookstore, but they still don’t have The Big Sleep.

*image from Wikipedia

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