The book is in the format of a journal being kept by 17 year old aspiring writer Cassandra Mortmain during the 1930’s in Britain. Her journal mainly recounts a few noteworthy months in the life of her rather eccentric family: famous author father who wrote one highly original, critically acclaimed book but nothing since and is kind of a jerk to everyone around him because of this, stepmother Topaz a beautiful and bohemian nudist model, beautiful older sister Rose, younger brother whose name I can’t remember, and the orphan of a previous servant Stephen. The family live in poverty in a ramshackle old castle, rent free, on the grounds of another estate.
The story begins with Cassandra and Rose desperately wanting something to happen to them. They are on the cusp of adulthood and feel trapped by their eccentric family and the poverty they have sunk to but while Rose is all about escape, Cassandra is much more interested in the event; the experience of something happening. Enter Simon and Neil Cotton, American brothers with English roots who have inherited the estate the Mortmains live on. The ensuing story told by Cassandra is an old one – coming of age, falling in love – indeed there is a love pentagram which is a little fantastic and seems headed for a clichéd and disneyfied ending. But Dodie Smith (who also wrote 101 Dalmations) thankfully avoids taking the usual path.
Cassandra is a good narrator, very likable, observant, tolerant and smart but believably 17. Her naiveté, carelessness and misguided idealism made me want to slap her silly at times but as we watch those things get crushed, I ached for her. The end of the book is unsettling, sad and entirely appropriate. Some people get what they want, but most don’t. Cassandra finds out in a rather dramatic way that life isn’t that romantic and that the right choices often times won’t bring you joy but may bring you happiness or at least contentment.
The rich and eccentric characters are what make this book but the author also does a good job of setting the scene and weaving the story through the vehicle of a journal. I definitely enjoyed it.