Every once in a while, a book comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, and changes your life. It’s one of those books that you clutch to your chest when you’re done, like if you hug it hard enough it will melt right into your heart because it feels like it belongs there already.
I found Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle on a table of random books at Barnes and Noble. The cover didn’t particularly grab me (I couldn’t find a good picture of the cover I have, but the one in the picture here is pretty), but some words on the cover did: it was endorsed by J.K. Rowling, the woman who doesn’t lend her name to anything. That was enough. And it gave me yet another reason to be grateful to the woman who gifted us with Harry Potter.
Back when her father was still riding high from his success as an author, Cassandra Mortmain moved with her family to a castle. At first, the castle is a glorious adventure. But when reality sets in, the castle becomes an anchor around the Mortmain family’s neck. Sure, it has a moat and turrets and a tower. But it’s also big and drafty and cold, and her father can’t afford to heat it without burning the furniture.
But Cassandra is the kind of girl who accepts the world she lives in. She doesn’t lose the romance of her castle even when things get to their bleakest points. Cassandra is why I read this book. She is the most realistically drawn seventeen year old I have ever read. She’s smart and capable and thinking of the future, but she’s still young enough that those plans have a dreamy naïveté that will speak to readers of all ages. She feels things passionately, but she’s a thinker. She spends a lot of time contemplating her options in her journal, and seeing those thoughts play out just make you love her more. She’s selfish only on the inside, and she’s astoundingly steady on the outside.
The many love stories of this book are still among my very favorites. Watching Cassandra have this dream of the kind of man she imagines herself belonging with made my heart break for her when I knew she was picking poorly (because at the wise old age of nineteen, I clearly understood the mysteries of the heart better than a mere seventeen year old). And I couldn’t help rooting for the boy who was the underdog – the boy who Cassandra didn’t really pay attention to who on the surface seemed like the easy choice but loved her truly. I loved the idea that people who are just alike are the ones who can be the least suited for each other, and I can’t imagine a better way for the romances in this book to turn out.
Most of all, I love the way this book ended. Open-endings are hard to pull off. Really hard. People become invested in the characters and they don’t want to imagine an ending for them, they want to know and be sure in their hearts that these characters they’ve grown to love have happy endings. And, even if Dodie Smith didn’t spell it out for me, I felt like Cassandra would have one. It was such an uplifting ending, and reading it as a college freshman on what felt like the cusp of a very high precipice, it made me feel like the leap would be so much less terrifying.
Everything about this book was perfection. The pace and plotting, the writing, the characters. I loved the background characters so much in this book. I especially loved Topaz, who is one of the most unconventional maternal figures ever written in a novel but also one of the very best. It was nice to see that an unconventional home could still be a happy one.
And really, that’s what makes this book so special. And what makes me so excited to pass this book along to any future daughter I might have. I Capture the Castle teaches you that the world is a hard place. There are hardships and obstacles and sometimes nothing will work out the way you expected. But it shows you that underneath all the struggles, there is still love and happiness and hope to be found. Reading this book was one of those defining moments for me, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
What books changed y’alls lives? What book do y’all most look forward to passing on to your children?