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Cassandra at the Wedding

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker | edge of evening

I told them I could be free by the twenty-first, and that I’d come home the twenty-second. (June.) […] It’s only a five-hour drive from the University to the ranch, if you move along — if you don’t stop for orange juice every fifty miles the way we used to, Judith and I, our first two years in college, or at bars, the way we did later, after we’d studied how to pass for over twenty-one at under twenty. As I say, if you move, if you push a little, you can get from Berkeley to our ranch in five hours, and the reason why we never cared to in the old days was that we had to work up to home life by degrees, steel ourselves somewhat for the three-part welcome we were in for from our grandmother and our mother and our father, who loved us fiercely in three different ways. We loved them too, six different ways, but we mostly took our time about getting home.Opening of ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker

It was love from the opening lines. Oh, to be someone who could write a novel in which the second sentence is just a single bracketed word! I was totally smitten with Cassandra at the Wedding, a book in which voice is everything, and so really I was totally smitten with the dazzling and neurotic Cassandra Edwards.

Charismatic Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley — twenty-one, ‘gay, brilliant, nerve-wracked, miserable’ as the back of my NYRB Classics has it and which initially I read to mean ‘gay’ = carefree though it quickly became obvious that it would be hard to find anyone less carefree — is called home from Berkeley to the family ranch near Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley for the wedding of her identical twin, Judith. But from the start, it’s clear that Cassandra is determined that the wedding mustn’t go ahead, for without sensible, conventional Judith she isn’t whole.

Throw in a recently dead mother (a famous writer), a brandy-soaked father (a one-time professor of philosophy who retired early because ‘it irked him to have to meet appointments’), a slightly dippy grandmother and the young doctor who has won Judith’s heart, and what follows is a perfect short novel that seems fresh and contemporary despite first being published in 1962. With its valley setting and characters with suicidal tendencies, it’s hard not to think of Joan Didion’s Run, River (1963), but Cassandra at the Wedding is always just on the edge of comedy as well as despair. Cassandra may be self-absorbed, manipulative and desperate, but she’s also got the best one-liners.

There’s so much to delight in structurally and technically too. The book covers a period of just a few days and its three sections — ‘Cassandra Speaks’, ‘Judith Speaks’ & ‘Cassandra Speaks’ — give voice to both of the sisters, allowing Baker to show not just their differences but also the echoes between them. The opening chapter could almost stand alone as a short story as we accompany Cassandra on the drive to the foothills of the Sierras and into her past. There’s a neat temporal gap between chapter 2 (late at night, drunk) and the start of chapter 3 (early the next morning) which works wonderfully because it’s crucial for us not to know exactly what was said and who said it as by morning Cassandra and Judith both have their own versions of the evening.

We’re still re-watching Mad Men (now on season 6 & so glad to have re-watched from the start before we face the final season), and one of the things that is so obvious this time through is the gaps in time between episodes and seasons. We never have to see Don & Megan’s wedding or Joan’s pregnancy — we know that they’ve happened and that’s enough. It allows us to skip through the moments that might otherwise be clichéd (is it possible to have a television wedding, or for that matter a real world wedding, that is not in some way a parody of all the weddings that have gone before?) taking us straight to the next part of the story. (Is it a character flaw that I relate everything back to Mad Men? If it is, I’m sure that there could be worse afflictions.)

Deborah Eisenberg’s Afterword to the NYRB’s edition of Cassandra at the Wedding also points to another of my long-time fascinations with Mad Men: the recognition of another as a mirror or missing part of one’s self:

In both dialogues [Plato’s ‘Symposium’ & ‘Phaedrus’] Socrates employs the indelible conceit of love as the recognition of the long-lost other half of the soul and the unbearable yearning to reunite with it.
Afterword to ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’, Deborah Eisenberg

And identity and wholeness are at the heart of Cassandra at the Wedding. How can Cassandra claim her own identity as a writer when her mother has been a successful author? ‘[I]t’s not easy for the child of a writer to become a writer,’ she tells us. ‘I’m don’t see why; it just isn’t. It’s something about not wanting to be compared. And not wanting to measure up, or not measure up; or cash in either.’ And how can she be complete without her twin sister, her very own mirror image? Baker’s exploration of Cassandra and Judith, both on the cusp of growing into their own selves, two young women at the start of radically different paths, makes for dazzling reading.

******

For a wonderful alternative blurb, it would be hard to beat this from Emily Books.

6 Comments

  1. “Is it a character flaw that I relate everything back to Mad Men?” It never even occurred to me to ask this question, though it should have. And isn’t it crazy that everything does relate back to Mad Men anyway?

    • Truly. But then I feel like I could continue watching Mad Men on repeat for the rest of my life — we’re already wondering how soon it would be seemly to begin again.

  2. Claire Fuller says

    Louise recommended this book too, at our last Taverners group. Definitely going on my tbr list.

    • Funnily it was one of the selection of books I put forward when I hosted our book group back in June — way before I knew we’d be going to California for the summer ourselves. It wasn’t picked (and I didn’t read the book that was, but judging by reactions ‘Cassandra’ would have been a far better choice) but I knew Louise was going to read it anyway. Somehow I didn’t even realise that it was set in California until I started it. And when I did start it I couldn’t wait to find out if Louise had read it & loved it too (yes & yes!). I’ll be returning ‘my’ copy to the library sometime next week 🙂

  3. It’s a few weeks since I finished it but the story and characters are still fresh in my head, something that rarely happens. I “only” own it on Kindle – the cheap copy I ordered on Amazon marketplace either never arrived or got lost in the move – but it’s one book I’m simply going to have to own in hard copy…..

    • Ah, yes, I was wondering whether it would be crazy to buy my own copy too. The last time I read a library book & then just *had* to buy it was ‘The Lowland’. But then my book shelves are groaning…maybe I need to move to the country and simply get more shelves?!

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