“So go, girl. We should have been one person all along, not two.”
Cassandra at the Wedding was Dorothy Baker’s final novel – published in 1962 – it is a story far darkly, comic than the deceptively cosy title might lead one to expect. I actually have Young Man with a Horn tbr too – which was Bakers first novel. I wondered whether I should have started with that novel – but something about this appealed far more – it is one I have heard only good things about. The narrative voice is unforgettable – a character that is at once sympathetic and disturbing – Cassandra Edwards is the first person narrator of two of the three sections of the novel – the middle section being narrated by her sister Judith. Right from the beginning there is something in Cassandra’s tone that alerts us to trouble ahead.
“ I think all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I’d go home, attend my sister’s wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace when it became a question of speaking now or forever holding it. I’d go, in all likelihood, and do everything an only attendant is expected to do. I’d probably dance attendance.
I didn’t even know who the groom was beyond that he was a graduate medical student she met in New York, and his name was Lynch, or maybe even Finch. Yes. Finch. John Thomas Finch. Where’d she meet him – Birdland?”
Cassandra is an identical twin; eleven minutes older than her sister Judith. On a hot day in June – the longest day in fact – she shuts up her apartment in Berkeley, California and sets off for her family’s ranch. Her sister Judith is getting married, and Cassandra’s attendance is required. Tidying away her thesis and covering up the piano she shared with her sister while they still lived together – Cassandra gets into the Riley that was once her mother’s for the five hour drive to the wedding she has no wish to go to. In the back is a dress she bought on her grandmother’s account to wear at the wedding Cassandra doesn’t believe should be taking place. The sisters have always been close – barely spending time apart – they had originally shared the apartment in Berkeley – until Judith suddenly decided to move to New York. In the apartment the Bösendorfer piano stands as a symbol of their tie to each other.
Cassandra is a brilliant graduate student, seemingly living on her nerves, she is miserable since her sister left for New York – convinced as she is that the two of them together only make one whole. The twins had previously little need of other people, they had existed very much for each other, Judith’s departure for New York was devastating for Cassandra – impacting on her health, her work and her emotions. Cassandra is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding, barely eating, drinking far too much, she’s in a bitterly conniving mood when she sets off for the Sierras.
Cassandra is gay – she later tries to explain her feeling about men to her sister Judith.
“With men I feel like a bird in the clutch of a cat, terrified, caught in a nightmare of confinement, wanting nothing but to get free and take a shower.”
So struggling a little with her sexuality her grief over her mother’s death; a writer to whom Cassandra fears she is unable to live up to, wrestling with her thesis and missing her sister from whom she has been unused to being apart – Cassandra has become very disturbed. She has been consulting a therapist – and carries with her in a white clutch bag – sleeping pills and uppers. Growing up the two girls – very much at their mother’s instigation – were encouraged to develop their own identity – she had refused point blank to ever allow the girls to dress alike. Only now as Cassandra considers the possibility of Judith moving further away from her – severing the whole she believes them to be – she seems to be losing a sense of her own identity. On the road to her family home – Cassandra stops for a while at a roadside bar – catching sight of herself in the mirrored surface behind the bar.
“By a firm act of will I forced the face between the shelves to stop becoming Judith’s and become mine. My very own face – the face of a nice girl preparing to be a teacher, writing a thesis, being kind to her grandmother, going home a day early instead of a day late or the day I said, and bringing something decent to wear. But it can give me a turn, that face, any time I happen to catch it in a mirror; most particularly at times like this when I’m alone and have to admit it’s really mine because there’s no one else to accuse.”
Judith is engaged to a young doctor Jack Finch; the wedding is due to be quiet – just Judith, Cassandra their philosophy professor father, grandmother and the groom himself. Noticeably absent of course their mother Jane, who died three years earlier – the family ranch, however is filled with her presence. It’s only upon Cassandra’s arrival at the ranch that we meet the rest of the family – the twins’ hard drinking father – who retired from teaching unconventionally young – their well-meaning maternal grandmother, who is keen to feed, and who appears to have replaced her daughter as the mother figure in the household.
With Jack’s arrival the following day expected, and Judith planning to go and pick him up from the airport – Cassandra begins at once to try and put a spoke in the wheel. She shows herself to be selfish, reckless, self-absorbed, bossy and overly reliant on her sister. The reader may not always like her much but surely we can all sympathise with her misery – heartbroken as she is at what she fears she is losing. Baker throws some wonderfully comic touches into this short novel – so that this story never becomes too dark – there’s lightness and shade and some funny one liners – generally spoken by Cassandra – who I really rather loved, despite everything.
This is a wonderfully subtle novel – although it has a very definite sixties setting – there is a classic timelessness to it which prevents it ever feeling dated. I’m very glad I began with Dorothy Baker’s final novel – for me it feels as if it was a great place to start.