What attracted me to House of Windows was the fact that it’s a book set at Cambridge university and I’m always curious about the way that Oxbridge is portrayed in literature and on screen. This portrayal can often be skewed or very stereotypical, as in films such as The Riot Club, so I was curious to read Casale’s interpretation, particularly as she actually attended the university herself. This book is about Nick, a fifteen year old boy who is admitted to Cambridge. Nick didn’t fit in at school but he finds socialising at Cambridge even harder given that he’s 15, well below the drinking age, and smarter than his tutorial partners. He joins the rowing team as a cox and things seem to be going well, but of course it wasn’t meant to last…
The book I read before this was Luckiest Girl Alive (see review here), a book in which there are no likeable characters and no one you can really relate to. I found the complete opposite in House of Windows. This book is all about character; much more so than plot. The protagonist, Nick, is a smart arse. He insists again and again that he’s not a genius, he just works hard and he isn’t satisfied that his work is graded with greek letters instead of percentages. At first you find you find him a little irritating, but then you get to know Nick better, you understand where he’s come from and how he’s got to where he is today and you start to feel for him. His Dad is never around and he finds it difficult to make friends so he works very hard to keep himself occupied. He is slightly strange but he’s not so strange that he shouldn’t be able to find friends, but the odds (mostly his age) are stacked against him.
Nick isn’t the only character that I loved in this book. There’s also Tim, a PhD student who keeps an eye on Tim and Professor Goswin, a tutor at Trinity Hall who was also around when Tim’s father and god-father attended the same college. Both are unique characters with stories and troubles of their own and Casale manages to give us enough information about them to make them fully padded out characters, but not so much that the plot deviates from Nick’s own story.
The story is a little slow and it takes a while for anything to happen as a lot of the book is description and Casale setting it up, but I think it’s well worth the wait. There are a few twists and turns that are unexpected and you can see Nick’s character develop throughout the novel in face of these challenges and his new life in general. By the time I’d passed half way, I was tearing through this book at quite a pace. As a reader I felt really attached to Nick and I was desperate to find out how his story ends. He’s not the most ‘likeable’ character but he’s one of those people that you grow fond of, and then grow to love.
All in all, the portrayal of Cambridge in this novel seems pretty accurate. Obviously Cambridge and Oxford are still unique places but a lot of the systems and language is the same, or at least, similar, so I think it’s fair for me to say that Casale has captured the spirit of Cambridge as a university perfectly. There’s quite a lot of description of how the Cambridge system works, which I really enjoyed and I think is important for those reading it that don’t already know anything about it. It’s a strange world, one that takes time to wrap your head around, but Casale’s beautiful writing makes it easy to get to know this small town and university.
This is a coming-of-age drama, but an atypical one, given that it’s about a 15 year old ‘coming of age’ at university. Through Nick, we learn about friendships family, new beginnings and saying goodbye. I’d highly recommend this to anyone who’s is either at university or going soon as Casale captures the sense of isolation and insecurity that most of us have felt at some point or another. However, the two things that really make this book a winner are Casale’s writing and Nick. I’ve never read anything by this author before but I was stunned by how well she captured the Oxbridge environment and her characters’ feelings. Casale is now one of my favourite YA authors and I can’t wait to read The Bone Dragon!
*This book was received for free in exchange from the publisher for an honest review. All opinions are my own.