Saturday, February 2, 2008

Laughter Reviews, #14

Time for another book review with the focus: FUNNY OR NOT?

by Dodie Smith
Young Adult

Teen living in a crumbling castle with her impoverished family ponders life and love.

What Works
Cassandra is a smart, charming, refreshing heroine, making the best of a difficult life. She has left school (it is not clear whether this is for financial reasons or if her education is considered complete) and spends her days recording her observations of the people living in the derelict castle with her. All are intriguing, either from the start or as the story develops. Older sister Rose is described as beautiful and bitter at being forced to be poor, younger brother Thomas mostly is at school or doing homework, stepmother Topaz is an artist's model prone to communing naked with nature and devoted to her husband and his children despite all taking her for granted to some degree, son of a deceased servant Stephen is Hollywood handsome and quietly in love with Cassandra, and finally, the grandiose character around whom the entire family and novel revolve, father Mortmain.

Years ago, Mortmain wrote a book so brilliant and revolutionary that he became a literary superstar on both sides of the Atlantic. Decades later, he has yet to follow up with another book, suffering from writer's block so crippling it is slowly strangling his family (If Apprentice Writer's rusty French is correct, this is an effective wordplay: 'mort' = death, 'main' = hand). The royalties have dried up, anything of value in the castle has been sold, all are perpetually hungry and poorly clothed. Yet they continue to live in daily hope that some spark will cause him to write again, and everyone tries to shield his genius from their stark situation while he spends his days in a remote (and to others, off-limits) part of the castle, solving crossword puzzles and reading detective stories personally delivered from the library by his adoring fan, the local schoolteacher. The only sources of income left are meagre model fees occasionally contributed by Topaz, and wages earned by Stephen who willingly labours as a farmhard to support them all.

Then a bomb drops into their lives in the form of two brothers from America. They just inherited the nearby Scoatney estate, of which Belmotte Castle (another wordplay: 'belle' = beautiful, 'mot' = word) is a part. As landlords, the brothers pay a visit, and become fascinated with Mortmain. He feels invigorated by the renewed literary discussions and by gaining access to Scoatney's library and invitations to stay at a flat in London. The rest of the family is thrown into a tizzy of hope that a relationship with the brothers may be a (literal) lifeline for them; how the bonds between the two families intertwine, and with what economic, emotional, and bookish results, forms the rest of the story.

From her perspective as middle child, Cassandra is ruthlessly honest about events, feelings, amd motivations - including her own. Her candour, determination to take the right rather than easy path, and her creativity in ultimately curing for her father's writer's block make her memorable.

The structure of the novel also works well, subdivided into three escalating parts as symbolized by the journals in which she writes. The first (setting the stage) is a cheap six-penny book and gift from the village vicar; the second (when relationships are developing) is a shilling book purchased from the village store just as fortunes begin to change; and the last (when everything comes to a head) is a beautiful leather two-guinea book, a gift from the brother for whom she is developing feelings. The end of the story coincides with the last page of the book, and Cassandra writes "....I don't intend to go on with this journal; I have grown out of wanting to write about myself. I only began today (because) I felt I ought to finish Rose's story off tidily. I seem to have finished my own off, too, which I didn't quite bargain for..." In her own eyes, she has left youth behind and become an adult.

Cassandra speaks in the first person, as many a more modern young adult or chicklit heroine; the sense one gets at the end of her story, however, is that she has reached a level of insight and maturity that not all her literary peers achieve.

What Doesn't
The story takes place in preWWII Britain, and as such is marked by turns of phrase and social conventions that may not be so easy for modern readers to relate to. The extreme way the household caters to the male figurehead, for example, the distinct class separations, or how frequently 17-year-old Cassandra is referred to by non-family members in a deliberately patronizing manner as 'child'. The fully character-driven story also lacks anything in the way of physical encounters, action adventure, intrigue, or paranormal elements that seem to make up much of current commercial fiction. For readers used to such types of fare, the pace may be slow. But for readers willing to delve into a previous age, the results are rewarding.

Besides this youth-oriented tale, Dodie Smith also wrote theatre for adults as well as the timeless children's classic, "The 101 Dalmatians". She is that rare author who appeals across age groups and generations.

But is it funny? YES - in an understated way
Save for one scene where Rose is mistaken for a bear, there is no slapstick or physical humor. The funny bits lie more in the unique way that Cassandra describes things. It is a wry, quiet sort of humor, but no less effective than more obvious types. Readers who appreciate understated wit will treasure this classic.


julia said...

Sounds just my cuppa. Thanks for the review.

Wylie Kinson said...

As much as I love me some laugh-out-loud, in-your-face funny, I really appreciate understated wit. It's a lot harder to pull off, too.

Great review, as usual, M!