Note: there are spoilers in this post.
This book was a slight disappointment to me. I’d heard so much about it, but it wasn’t quite what I expected. For one thing, the main character is older than I had thought, but sounds (and is treated by others) as if she’s younger. It’s about a poor family that lives in a rundown castle (with a house partly built inside its courtyard) in the English countryside. It’s so dilapidated they live in it rent-free (kind of by accident, but then the lenient terms are extended). The narrator is teenage Cassandra, who aims to practice her writing skills by “capturing” the people and surroundings in her journal. This may sound strange, but her voice reminded me of Anne Frank. I did like how she frequently re-imagined scenes or tried to picture future encounters with people- so true to life.
Her father was once a famed author, but has suffered from writer’s block for over a decade and appears to do nothing. The rest of the family feels they have no skills to earn a living- they are practically supported by charitably distant neighbors and their orphaned serving boy who does all he can for them with little regard or reward. They’re wondering where their next crust of bread will come from when two wealthy American brothers inherit the estate next door (their opinion of Americans, based solely on knowing these two men, was amusing). Older sister immediately sets her sights on one of them, determined to marry and get them out of poverty. Cassandra herself has feelings for the same man, but squelches them in light of helping her sister. I did like her descriptions, and events take quite a few interesting turns- especially concerning the servant boy, Stephen- but I didn’t anticipate that this whole story would be about relationships, nor the nasty turn some of the characters would take in order to get their own way. I found the character of the step-mother interesting- although supportive of the father to a fault, she was an intriguing free-spirited woman, posed for artists to earn some money, usually had something interesting to say- but there wasn’t quite enough of her in the story. And I liked Stephen, but felt bad how poorly the family treated him.
I was baffled by the father. I didn’t understand his behavior, and started to think- as the family does- that he suffered from mental illness. The idea that he was a genius and must be coddled and excused in spite of his erratic and sometimes violent actions started to wear on me. By far one of the most interesting parts of the novel is near the end, when Cassandra and her brother try to force him to write by locking him up in an old tower on the hill. I was confused at the outcome, and the sparse descriptions of his prior book and supposed plans for the new one, don’t help any. (His parenting abilities made me think of The Glass Castle, ha). After that the story quickly fell flat- I didn’t really like the ending. I suppose it was rather realistic, but the sudden turn some characters took- who they had a fancy for- not who you thought all the time you were reading- really annoyed me.
I’m glad I finally read this book but I don’t think I’ll keep it. However, it’s a favorite with a lot of other readers (see below)!