So our story finished, though without the neatly tied up conclusion I’d expected—and maybe you had too. Not that there wasn’t fair warning that things would blow up: On the very first page of Part 3, Dodie Smith wrote about the great storm clouds swirling around. And maybe it was the right, most plausible ending for these characters? But we’ll come back to that. First, let’s talk about what happened along the way.
Chapter XIII was pivotal. We get the first glimmerings that Stephen is moving on; that the father takes in more than just his detective novels; that Rose is not truthful in her feelings; that Simon is deluding himself. And through it all there’s Cassandra working out her own emotions. I had to laugh at her daydreams of winning Simon and giving Rose a kick in the process, because who hasn’t been there? She’s very much in the throes of first love, and I think it’s genuine, born out of a real connection and not just physical attraction. (She later realizes that Simon is not really handsome, but for Cassandra handsome is not the point—otherwise, she would have given herself over to the apparently Adonis-like Stephen.)
One surprise is the turn that Smith—in the form of Cassandra—takes toward faith and religion in this chapter. “Surprise” because Smith could just as easily have never touched on the issue. Cassandra’s awakening to the questions of the spirtual go hand-in-hand with her journey to adulthood, but I did wonder if ultimately Smith intended this section to have a broader meaning. She wrote Castle in the years just after World War II; given the horrors of that war, was it possible she was addressing those whose faith she thought had flagged? I don’t know; could be just as likely that I’m reading into it—the book itself doesn’t tip at all to what was happening in England and the world in the 1930s. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
So off Cassandra and Stephen go to London, and that’s the beginning of the end. It becomes blatantly clear how Rose feels about her upcoming marriage, and Cassandra reveals her rather shocking—shocking to Rose, anyway—turnaround from support to, well, “disapproval” seems mild. In the heat of the moment I was with Cassandra, but Rose was right: Cassandra was jumping ship just when she was most needed. And once more the worthy Stephen comes to her aid, as she finds herself stranded, penniless, in an all-night cafeteria. In the course of the night, Cassandra passes rather cruel judgment on not only Rose but Topaz as well, and gives the last blows to Stephen’s breaking heart. (Stephen turns out to be more complex than you might have expected, no?)
In Chapter XV we’re back at the castle, and things take a turn for the truly odd. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of Cassandra and Thomas’s plan to imprison their father, though Thomas seems to relish the idea. So here’s the question: Is the father crazy? He certainly can be violent, and the fact that he can fling Cassandra around and then offer casual concern would indicate some, um, abnormality. But then, she’s casual about it! So locking him away doesn’t seem like the worst thing, especially when they find his CAT SAT ON THE MAT work and have a Stephen King Shining moment. But apparently that’s all it takes to unblock the father’s genius: By the time Topaz rescues him (Smith is most ungenerous to her here, I think), he has the beginnings of a bound-to-be-celebrated new work that no one in his family (except maybe Thomas) understands. And at last Topaz finds why she’s necessary to him.
Then we’re at the seaside town, where Simon and Cassandra come to realize the truth about Rose and Neil. Was anyone surprised by that? Do you think Simon really loved Rose? I think he says something very telling to Cassandra, when talking about why people try to describe beauty: “I suppose it’s the complete identification with beauty one’s seeking.” And of course just pages later he’s on the verge of asking Cassandra to marry him when she puts the kibosh on it.
So did she do that for him or for herself? Though Smith leaves the door wide open for a reconsideration on Cassandra’s part—when circumstances are “favourable.” Do you think that happens? How do you think they all end up? And finally, what do you think the title means?
Thanks for reading along, Bookies, both this month and all this year. Don’t forget: Vote for your January book by this Sunday! (You had to know I’d get in one more plug this year.) I wish you the very best, a merry Christmas, and a very happy 2011.
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