"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cosy".
This is the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, which tells of her extraordinary family and their crumbling castle home.
Cassandra's father was once a famous writer, but now he mainly reads detective novels while his family slide into genteel poverty.
Her sister Rose is bored and beautiful, and desperate to marry riches.
Their step-mother Topaz has habit of striding through the countryside wearing only her wellington boots.
But all their lives will be soon be transformed by the arrival of new neighbours from America, and Cassandra finds herself falling in love...
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 592 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Publishing
- Publication Date: 02/08/2012
- Category: Classic
- ISBN: 9780099572886
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Review by thorold
This is a book that has become one of the classic British comic novels, and it’s one that I loved at once when I first read it, many years ago. I was a bit nervous about re-reading it: would the eccentric charm have worn off? - I needn't have worried. It stands up to the passage of time very well. In fact, I'm probably more susceptible to Cassandra’s carefully calibrated naivety now than I was thirty-five years ago. What is apparent when you re-read it is that it is a very technically-sophisticated piece of writing. Smith has to work very hard behind the scenes to keep up the illusion of seventeen-year-old Cassandra scribbling away in her notebooks as events unfold around her. (And to borrow plot ideas shamelessly from Jane Austen.) It's all very cunningly arranged, so that you scarcely catch a glimpse of the stage machinery whirring away behind the scenes, but when you look closely you see that you are in a theatre and watching a well-made play, in which every actor has a part proportioned exactly to his or her importance, every prop and feature of the scenery is used for something at the relevant moment. And every bit of charm and nostalgia has a suitably deflating joke attached to it in the proper place. Brilliantly done, not a line wasted!Of course, the other thing when you re-read a book is that you’re usually more aware of context than you were the first time round. I knew from the start that I was not reading an autobiographical first novel by a young writer, but a mature work by an established playwright whose own background had little in common with her characters. Moreover, I knew she was writing it in exile in the US during the war, and that the Englishness was contrived at least as much to suit the tastes of American readers as for the “home” market. (Compare Wodehouse’s wonderfully nostalgic books written during and after the war and also set mostly in an idyllic thirties England.) That knowledge doesn't take away your enjoyment of the book, but it does help you see what the author is up to.