Thursday, November 5, 2009

Plucky Heroines in Moldering Castles: Adventure, Romance, Diaries, and Nazis

Okay, so only one of these books actually involves Nazis, but the shadow of WWII is looming over both Michelle Cooper's recently published A Brief History of Montmaray and Dodie Smith's classic, I Capture the Castle. When I stumbled across a review of Cooper's Montmaray I immediately placed a hold on it at my local library. A young girl living on a fictional island nation of the coast of Spain during WWII is just the sort of novel that I love--and Montmaray lived up to my expectations and more. It has Nazis! Romance! Secret passageways! A droll yet endearing heroine!

But wait!

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle also involves romance, droll-yet-endearing heroines living in crumbling castles, a diary-style narrative, and family drama the likes of which I hope to never experience. While these novels are certainly distinct, the plot and narrative similarities between the two make it impossible for me not to associate them with one another--so, without further ado, here are both reviews:

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

Sophie FitzOsborne is an odd sort of princess. She lives with her tomboyish younger sister, her beautiful, scholarly cousin Veronica, Veronica's slightly mad father (the King of Montmaray, on his good days), and approximately five villagers on the small island nation of Montmaray. Sophie's story begins with the arrival of a sixteenth birthday gift, a diary, sent from her beloved brother Toby. Cooper engagingly establishes the not-so-genteel poverty of Sophie's family and her infatuation with their housekeeper-cum-caretaker's son, Simon Chester, but the novel doesn't really take off until the arrival of a small group of Nazi scholars bent on discovering the Holy Grail--which they believe, due to an errant word by Simon Chester--may be hidden somewhere in the Montmaray Castle. The Nazis serve as a catalyst for change in the complacent FitzOsborne clan, and before Sophie realizes what's happening to her safe world, she's hiding bodies, solving the mystery of Veronica's missing mother, and escaping Montmaray during an harrowing air strike. While the novel has some humorous elements and Sophie herself is upbeat yet contemplative, Cooper examines the intricacies of family life and the painful excitement of change very well. Best of all, the ending is satisfying yet allows for the possibility of the continuation of Sophie's story.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra Mortmain, like Sophie FitzOsborne, lives a crumbling castle and hasn't had a new dress in ages, but Smith's novel is more nuanced than Cooper's Montmaray. Cassandra's father published a lauded work of fiction and then proceeded to have writer's block for the forseeable future, but not before moving his family to an isolated castle (really a keep) in the British countryside. Cassandra is an utterly endearing narrator, and her growing-up is chronicled so beautifully and eloquently that it isn't difficult to understand why I Capture the Castle has a cult following. (Also Dodie Smith wrote One Hundred and One Dalmatians! How can you not love the woman who created Cruella de Vil?)

As with A Brief History of Montmaray, it takes outsiders to shake things up a bit for the Mortmains. When their new American landlords arrive, Cassandra's beautiful sister Rose sets her sights on the rich older brother, Simon--unfortunately, so does Cassandra. To complicate matters further, Simon's brother Neil appears to hate Rose, and the Mortmains' live-in family friend Stephen dotes on Cassandra. An eccentric model stepmother, Topaz, a largely absent younger brother, and the landlords' polished mother and friends complete the cast of characters.

I love I Capture the Castle because Cassandra is such a realistic and lovable heroine who deals with a difficult situation well. She doesn't even seem to resent her largely absent father. The family barely has enough to eat yet Papa Mortmain continues to read detective novels and have moods. The indulgence for his "genius" is the only part of the book that bothers me--it doesn't seem too realistic, but other than that the novel is a sensitive and engaging narrative of a young girl's tumultuous entry into adulthood. What makes I Capture the Castle even more compelling is the sense the reader has of knowing that although life is changing drastically for Cassandra, soon the world will undergo complete upheaval, as the novel is set on the cusp of WWII. You end up caring so much for Smith's characters that you worry about their lives post-I Capture the Castle, which in my opinion is a sign of a good read.

You will love I Capture the Castle. Read it and A Brief History of Montmaray immediately. For good measure you may want to watch One Hundred and One Dalmatians, too. I promise Cruella de Vil is just as fabulously frightening as ever.

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