Spoilers for first 100 pages:
I've read this book before, fairly recently (like last year); it immediately went right to my top 20 books list. I wanted to read it again for this book club, not only to share it, but also because I wanted to see if it would be as good the second time, or even better, when I could focus on the amazing writing rather than plot.
Not that there's that much plot in the first 100 pages, as you may have noticed. So much of the fun of this book is Cassandra's idiosyncratic, casual-but-clearly-well-read style. The conceit that she's writing this in her notebook, and that, in a way, she is trying to figure out how one becomes an author--I find that incredibly charming, and her turns of phrase are both witty and ever-so-slightly teetering on the border between young adult and adult. Grabbing two examples that I underlined: "Topaz was wonderfully patient -- but I sometimes wonder if it is not only patience, but also a faint resemblance to cows"; and, a big lunch: "We had roast chicken (wing portion, two shillings), double portions of bread sauce (each), two vegetables, treacle pudding and wonderful milky coffee. We were gloriously bloat." So even if there were no plot whatsoever, I could read Cassandra's prose all day.
Her light touch and witty writing, though, is in the context of the most miserable living conditions. And Cassandra describes this in great detail--their hunger, their lack of furnishings, the crumbled home, the depression of their father, the hopelessness of getting money, the humiliation of it all. But, and I think this is the key, she does it without much brooding or dwelling. Her touch is light, and she always has a sense of herself as an artist experiencing this, or maybe a book character. She's an outsider, an observer, a writer. She's here to "capture the castle"--to suck out every drop of description and personality from the situation. Gaiman says to people who are suffering: "Make good art." This is Cassandra's solution.
So, plot. The plot hinges on exactly two things: one, we need money; two, Rose seems sellable in marriage, in a Jane Austen sense. Rose and Cassandra (and Topaz, to a different degree) understand the situation as one that comes up *all the time* in Austen and Bronte. What do poor women do? They marry. And so, Rose, realizing what sort of character she is, and in what sort of book, realizing that she needs to suck it up and trudge down the altar, tries to play the part. Neither Simon (too beardy) nor Neil (younger son, and possibly a bit snippy) seem the ideal man for the part, but that's all right. And so these first 100 pages almost become a parody of these classic woman-authored novels, these satires on how you get a man, and what women need to do for financial security (and Rose is willing to jump on the grenade not only for herself, but her whole family.)
What I love about these first 100 pages is that the novel refuses to go the obvious route--Topaz is not at all a wicked stepmother, but one of the "girls" as Cassandra often refers to her and Rose collectively. Topaz is quite loving and kind. And Stephen just does not seem to spark anything in Cassandra romantically, even though you'd think someone as sensitive and poetic as Cassandra would lean that way. Nope. He inspires pity instead. Instead of seeing comfort in religion, this family, the Mortmains (the Dead Hands, a term suggesting oppression), seems downright pagan. Cassandra refers obliquely to this several times, and Topaz seems to have a pretty casual relationship with nudity outside and in her work.
The bear-fur episode--okay, I could do without that. That was a little silly. That the one bit I didn't enjoy rereading.
In short, I find Cassandra's language totally amusing. She's doing it: castle captured.