Released: 9th April 2012 (this edition)
Publisher: Vintage Publishing (this edition)
This enchanting novel tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her unusual family who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Cassandra’ s eccentric father is a writer whose first book took the literary world by storm but he has since failed to write a single word and now spends his time reading detective fiction. Cassandra’s sister, Rose, despairs of her family’s circumstances and determines to marry their affluent American landlord. She is helped and, sometimes, hindered in this by their bohemian stepmother, an artists’ model who likes to commune with nature. Finally there is Stephen who is hopelessly in love with Cassandra. Amid this maelstrom Cassandra hones her writing skills, candidly capturing the events that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love
I wasn’t sure how much I’d like this, but I really, really enjoyed it (as you can tell by the 5/5 rating)! The story is told through journal entries of Cassandra, the 17 year old girl living in near-poverty in a rundown castle that her family haven’t paid rent on for several years. But, as she’s attempting to improve her writing, she recounts the events as if she were telling a story, which adds both a depth and realism and a level of drama and humour that I didn’t anticipate. I read a large portion of this on a train journey and did, much to my embarrassment, laugh out loud on several occasions (especially at the ‘Green Sleeves’ incident, lol).
This wasn’t really the sort of book to rush through, I enjoyed savouring it and the beautiful writing, it didn’t feel too dated or overdone as books written ‘ages ago’ can feel. I didn’t find the pacing or the plot too slow at all, I thoroughly enjoyed the snapshot into such an unusual and dysfunctional family situation. I’ve always been fascinated by 1930s/1940s Britain, so I really enjoyed the social history element of reading a novel set in this era.
Cassandra was very easy to like, strong-minded and probably quite freethinking for her time. She wasn’t all obsessed with finding a husband (like her sister) and she wasn’t prepared to settle with Stephen just because he was attractive and it made sense financially. She was a bit naïve and selfish at times, but I did like that side of her, it was more realistic. I do wish she’d had a little bit more ambition. By this point in history women DID have a lot more rights and social standing, and I would have liked to have seen Cassandra want to make something of herself a bit more. Having said that, it was easy to see how trapped she was by her circumstances.
Rose, I understood her, and I wanted to dislike her, but I actually couldn’t. I couldn’t blame her for wanting to be free of her circumstances and make life better for herself and her family cause who could? The way she went about it wasn’t exactly ideal but it was all she knew how to do. She made the right decision eventually though, and I was happy about that.Topaz and Cassandra’s father were fantastically complex. In fact, most of the characters, even the Americans were complex. Cassandra’s way of writing captured them all in a really life-like way and huge props to the author for achieving this. I loved the psychological element of her father’s reluctance or even inability to write another book, and Topaz’s eccentricities and kindnesses.
I was so busy enjoying the book that I totally didn’t guess the end which really surprised me! If I’d thought more about it, I probably could have gotten the twist, but it was nice to be caught up in a story enough to not be thinking hard enough to figure it out. I did really like the end, I can see how it would be unsatisfying but I can’t imagine it ending another way.
This would easily be a YA novel if published nowadays; it’s a fantastic coming-of-age story with a really relatable main character with an extraordinary voice and it’s beautifully written. I think it will be going on my all-time favourites list and I wish more people would pick this up!