I discovered this fantastic book through Netflix instant play, where I watched what I assumed just to be a pretty cool indie movie. I didn’t realize that it was based on a novel until I was checking out some books at the library and saw it in its forest-green jacket in a pile of returns. “Um, could I grab that book too?” I asked the librarian, who kindly added it to my stack.
I love this book.
This book was first published in 1948, and British author Dodie Smith weaves what can only be called a classic tale. The narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra, starts a journal which morphs into the story of her family’s past and present. “I am writing this journal partly to practise my newly acquired speed-writing and partly to teach myself how to write a novel–I intend to capture all our characters and put in conversations. It ought to be good for my style to dash along without much thought, as up to now my stories have been very stiff and self-conscious.” And let me say–there is nothing stiff or self conscious about this delightful novel!
Cassandra Mortmain’s family is penniless, artistic, and entirely unique, living rent-free in a crumbling English castle with virtually no furniture, a funny old bathroom in a tower, and a real moat. Her father, a brilliant but long unfruitful writer, has been languishing idle for years. Topaz, Cassandra’s stepmother, is a famous artists’ model whose hard work keeps the household afloat and who from time to time communes with nature in the nude. The book encompasses a 6 month period in which the family undergoes drastic changes–Cassandra’s elder sister Rose may have found a way out of poverty via the age-old method: a rich suitor, the American Simon Cotton.
Cassandra as a narrator is endearingly honest and candid–sometimes poetic, sometimes practical. She speaks with absolute, unjaded sincerity. The story that emerges is so fresh and captivating in part because she comes to the page with her emotion and excitement still glowing from whatever event has just transpired. It’s impossible not to get wrapped up in her story, her emotions, her fantasies, and her disappointments.
Cassandra experiences confusing feelings towards the different men in her life: her father as a failed artist, their young hired hand who has the looks of a Greek god, Simon Cotton even as he woos her sister–and as she gradually shakes off her childhood, she starts learning what she wants out of life.
I can’t resist giving you a taste of the writing, so here’s a small excerpt–after falling into the tempestuous clutches of young love, Cassandra ponders “Surely it isn’t normal for anyone so miserably in love to eat and sleep so well? Am I a freak? I only know that I am miserable, I am in love, but I raven food and sleep. Another great luxury is letting myself cry–I always feel marvellously peaceful after that. But it is difficult to arrange times for it, as my face takes so long to recover; it isn’t safe in the mornings if I am to look normal when I meet father at lunch, and the afternoons are no better, as Thomas is home by five. It would be all right in bed at night but such a waste, as that is my happiest time.”
Everyone should read this book. And for your added enlightenment, if I’m reading this correctly on the ‘other books by Dodie Smith’ page, this author also wrote “The Hundred and One Dalmatians.” What!?!? Perhaps Disney took great liberties with the story? Anyway, this enchanting book is seriously not to be missed.