~~Sigh~~ A windswept island, daring escapes from Nazis, British country estates, dancing with soldiers in London, writing Food Ministry brochures extolling the values of carrots to hungry British citizens and a funny little sister who bullies a young Princess Elizabeth at a aristocratic Girl Guides Meeting. The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper (a series of three lovely books: A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, and The FitzOsbornes at War) are those kind of books where the narrator feels so natural, so familiar that I often forget that the stories in the book didn’t actually happen to me. Sadly, the memories are not all pleasant. These books are about a teenager’s family evolving and trying to survive World War II, all with the weight of a small country on their shoulders. I had originally written “evolving and surviving World War II,” until I remembered the pages and pages of sobbing while reading The FizOsbornes at War. Don’t worry, there is a wonderful ending.

Montmaray is a (fictional) tiny island monarchy between England and Spain whose already small population was decimated during World War I, and there are only a few village families left living in the shadow of a romantic, crumbling castle when 16 year old Sophie begins keeping her journal in 1936. Oh yes, ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLE. Sophie is actually Princess Sophie of the FitzOsborne Royal Family– she is one of three Princesses of Montmaray (the others being her stunning, intellectual cousin, Princess Veronica, and her younger tomboy sister, Princess Henry) and also the younger sister of the future King of Montmaray, charming Prince Toby FitzOsborne. However, Sophie’s royal title does not correspond to a royal lifestyle, at least not while she is living on a remote island in a stripped bare castle under the rule of her mentally ill uncle. Their wealthy aunt is forever trying to get the girls to move away from Montmaray and become a part of British Society, but their loyalty to Montmaray keeps them grasping to its shores until they have no choice but to fall into the lap of luxury. And then, of course, the war begins and Sophie’s home seems lost forever.

It is no secret among people who know me that my favorite book is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (I have written about it on the blog here and compared it to another fabulous book, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, here, and the Montmaray Journals shares much in common with Dodie Smith’s fantastic novel (which is pretty much the highest praise I will give a book!). Both stories are told in thoughtfully-written diary entries by quiet teenage girls in 1930’s and whose lives seem both beautifully ordinary and bohemian at the same time. Both girls fall in love with men named Simon. Both feel inferior to their prettier, outgoing relations. And yes, both live in ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLES!

P.S. I will just say, that for those of you who thought the end of I Capture the Castle was not a happy one (and I disagree with that! but now is not the place to discuss…), you will be very satisfied with the ending Sophie chooses for herself.

I Capture the Castle Book Covers

“I know of few novels—except Pride and Prejudice—that inspire as much fierce lifelong affection in their readers.” – Joanna Trollope

When most people ask me what my favorite book is, they do so while thinking that they already know the answer. Being the flamboyant Harry Potter fan that I am, they are a bit shocked when exclaim “I Capture the Castle!” followed by a deep sigh–a deep sigh that signifies how much I wish I was curled up and reading that book right that very moment.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

My first copy of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (who also wrote the wonderful children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians) was given to me by my aunt (who was notorious for her excellent book recommendations) when I was in my early teens. I say “first copy” because that book is long gone having been lent to friends who then lent it to friends who then lent it to friends. So I bought myself another copy; one with a quote by J.K. Rowling on the cover (who is also a big fan of the book. If you go to her website at www.jkrowling.com and click on the spectacles, you will see Dodie Smith’s classic sitting on Rowling’s bookcase not far from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.) and have been rereading it and lending it to more friends ever since. I have even been known to check out a copy of the book from the library while my own is being borrowed, and was recently surprised by finding a cheerful yellow flower pressed between the pages of a copy from the University of Iowa.

Cassandra MortmainI Capture the Castle takes place in 1930’s England where seventeen year old Cassandra Mortmain begins to journal her everyday experiences about her family and surroundings in order to prepare herself for a career as a writer. Luckily, her family and surroundings provide ample opportunity for expression: Cassandra happens to live in a crumbling castle on the English countryside that she shares with her father, a former famous author who has retreated into himself after a decade-long writer’s block, her step-mother, an eccentric artist’s model who holds the family together while also spending a great deal of her time walking naked around the grounds, and her beautiful, gold-digging older sister, who is determined to marry the wealthy American who just inherited the neighboring estate. But it is Cassandra’s own heart that keeps the pages turning as she grows as a young lady and learns how to break and be broken. I have never met a narrator so lovely as Cassandra, and reading her journals feels truly as natural as listening to my own thoughts. And so I will continue to read and reread and reread.