This is a fun, charming little book, written in a sort of loose diary format from the perspective of a girl living in 1930’s rural England. Most of its appeal is in Cassandra’s voice, which is very strong, and its portrayal of a coming-of-age story that’s enjoyable and lighthearted, but without being dumb or shallow in retrospect.
Cassandra and her family live in an old castle, and they’ve been sinking into poverty since her author-father hasn’t written anything for years. Much of the book focuses on the romantic escapades of Cassandra and her older sister Rose, when two eligible young American men move in nearby. But the book isn’t a romance; it’s a story about growing up, and Cassandra wrestles with her relationships with family members, her (lack of) religious beliefs and her writing skills--she’s keeping a journal as practice for writing a novel, which neatly explains the inclusion of scenes and dialogue in someone’s diary.
The book starts out a bit slowly, but gets going after about 50 pages and is an entertaining read. “Charming” is probably the best word for it. Cassandra stands out for her mix of intelligence and naïveté; she’s quite perceptive about people, but doesn’t know much about life. She feels real and authentic (minus one problem that I’ll get to later). It’s interesting to see all the other characters through Cassandra’s eyes, because several are not very nice and yet everything we hear about them is filtered through Cassandra’s deep-seated affection for them. The book makes excellent use of voice and perspective and never forgets who is telling the tale. And the writing style is good, but believable coming from a 17-18 year old girl. Some episodes are downright amusing, and the book does a good job recalling what it’s like to grow up.
My biggest problem with the book was that I experienced a lot of dissonance regarding Cassandra’s (and Rose’s) actual age. Cassandra is 17-18 and Rose 20-21, but both felt 3-4 years younger. A lot of that is probably cultural and as a historical fiction reader I should be used to this, but I think the fact that the book is set in relatively modern times actually made this worse. There’s the way people around Cassandra infantilize her--their constantly referring to her as a “child” (even her significantly-older love interest does this, which is creepy) and, for instance, asking if she’s old enough to attend a dinner party (why wouldn’t she be?) had me picturing her as about 12. And then, neither she nor Rose seems to have any future plans; Cassandra has no thought of leaving home; neither has any work experience or marketable skills; neither has ever thought herself in love or so much as kissed a boy. (Rose, whom we’re told is beautiful, “first realizes” her power over men during the book. I know they live in a remote area, but surely she’d encountered male attention before?) So, Cassandra’s experience of being 17-18 felt more like my experience of being 15. Which surprised me a bit, because we think of ourselves as growing up slowly in the U.S. these days. On the bright side, though, the fact that I can relate to Cassandra’s experiences at all speaks well of the book.
Possibly I just read this book at the wrong age (mid-20s). It’s probably best read by either teenagers a few years younger than Cassandra, or adults decades removed who want to look back nostalgically on their teen years. One of the things Smith does very well here is write a book that can appeal to both kids and adults; perhaps because it was written before the “young adult” genre was born, it’s appropriate for young readers without ever feeling patronizing or whitewashed.
Also, I read the edition with the movie cover, but disliked it so intensely that I'm listing the hardcover edition so I don't have to look at it again.