Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra at the Wedding (first published in 1962) will make my end-of-year highlights, no doubt about it. As this novel opens, Cassandra Edwards, a graduate student at Berkeley, is preparing to drive home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith. From the opening pages, she seems in two minds as to whether to take the trip, and as she looks at the Golden Gate Bridge, we begin to sense that something is desperately wrong:

Besides, my guide assures me that I am not, at heart, a jumper; it’s not my sort of thing. I’m given to conjecture only, and to restlessness, and I think I knew 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… (pg 4, NYRB Classics)

Cassandra narrates the first section of the novel, and as she travels home we learn more of her relationship with Judith. The two twins used to share an apartment in Berkeley and seemed inseparable, content to live their lives for each other with little need for outsiders. But then Judith departed for New York leaving Cassandra cut adrift and in a state of procrastination over her thesis on French novels. In this respect, Cassandra is also living in the shadow of her deceased mother, Jane, a famous writer and influential figure in the twin’s lives.

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Identity is a key theme in this novel. As the twins were growing up, their parents, Jane in particular, refused to have the girls dress alike. And as Cassandra tells her grandmother (at a later stage in the novel) “they were concerned to have us become individuals, each of us in our own right, and not be confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” (pg. 65)

But despite her parents’ best efforts there are hints that Cassandra is losing a sense of her own identity. During her journey home, Cassandra stops as a bar and catches her face in the mirror, and at first she sees the face of Judith looking at her very thoughtfully:

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. (pg. 8)

Moreover, Baker develops this theme of identity as the novel progresses. On Cassandra’s arrival home, we meet her amiable, brandy-soaked father, her slightly befuddled but well-meaning grandmother (Rowena) and Judith, of course. In this scene, Cassandra asks her father what he thinks of her sister’s fiancé, Jack Finch – Judith is not present here:

“Rowena,” my father said to my grandmother from behind me, “Cassie is very much concerned to find out what Jack Finch is like.”

“He’s all wrapped up in Judy,” gran said in a fluty voice, “and that’s the most important thing.”

[…]

“Is Jude wrapped up too?” I said. I said it possibly a little too loudly or pointedly just to let her know how a phrase like wrapped-up sounds to the sensitive ear; but though I meant it only for her, it was my father who answered.

“I don’t think we need to be too much concerned,” he said. “They seem to understand each other.”

This was the second time he’s used the word concerned, and I considered asking him why he kept using it on me. Was the implication that what Judith did was no concern of mine, because if that was what he meant I should make it very clear that I could not possibly be less concerned. If a person of her stature and of her gifts chooses to sell herself short and go all the way of suburbia, who am I to speak up for what I think of as virtue? Who am I? Or possibly, who am I? Make it who was I, because once I was somebody. (pgs. 39-40)

Cassandra is a very complex character. She is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel. Her thoughts and actions are full of contradictions, and at times she deludes herself. At heart, Cassandra is emotionally dependent on Judith, and deep down her sister’s departure to New York (some nine months ago) and imminent marriage feel like acts of betrayal. The presence of a grand piano in Cassandra’s apartment – an instrument jointly purchased by the twins – remains a constant painful reminder of Judith’s desertion. The twins were meant to live their lives together, travel to Paris and beyond. How could Judith ever imagine life being any other way?

As the story unfolds, it appears as if Cassandra is all set to derail her sister’s wedding. In this scene, Cassandra is alone with Judith following a kerfuffle over their wedding outfits:

I twitched and got her arm off my shoulder quite fast and quite suddenly. After all, I didn’t have to sit here with some bride and listen to her saying wedding dress over and over.

“Will you just do this,” she said, and she was pleading now – “wear the dress you bought? Let me get something else, but you wear that one, will you please – for me?”

I turned and looked at her. The pounding was very strong now and my eyes felt as if they’d caught fire. I had my glass in my hand, about a fourth full.

“For you?” I said. “Who’s that?” and I drained the glass at a shot and threw it as hard as I could down onto the terrace between us and the pool. It shattered with a real smash and I felt one of the pieces hit me in the leg. (pg. 77)

And here we see how Judith – who by contrast to Cassandra is calm, reasonable, sensible yet vulnerable in her way – finds her sister rather overwhelming and draining on occasions:

“I’m going alone,” she said. “I thought I told you.”

“You told me so many things,” I said.

She waited a minute, looking back over her shoulder toward the pool; then she looked down at me, and said very quietly, “No, I don’t think I really told you anything. It was all you, you did the talking, you made all the plans, and I, I don’t know, but I think I got sort of drowned in it, or snowed under. When you hit your stride you’re –”

“I’m what. Tell me. I absolutely have to know what I am when I hit my stride.”

“You’re overwhelming. It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you – kind of a circus. Only –”

She stopped, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to prod her. Maybe the best would be to keep her stopped, but before I thought how to do it it was too late.

“The trouble is that just when it’s all fun, all high and wild, you do a switch and have to be rescued all of a sudden…” (pg. 121)

That’s about as much as I’m prepared to say about the plot, save to say there’s plenty to come. In the second section of the book, Judith takes up the role of narrator and we hear a very different voice, one that is mature and measured.

Cassandra and the Wedding is a brilliant novel; so layered and nuanced I’m already on my second read. It’s a novel about the process of maturing as a young adult. Cassandra has to balance the pull of her relationship with Judith against the need to break free to establish her own identity, and the reverse applies, too. There are allusions to Greek mythology; the girls’ father is a retired philosopher, and their names are not insignificant. And the novel’s ending has an air of ambiguity about it, one that makes it all the more intriguing.

Cassandra, with her distinctive voice, is one of my favourite characters from literature, and while the novel exposes her, replete with flaws, Baker adds some wonderful comic touches. I’ll finish with one of Cassie’s one-liners – of which there are many – following her grandmother’s declaration that it’s ‘God’s plan’ for Judy and Jack to be together:

“What do you suppose God’s planning for me?” I said. “Besides poverty, chastity, obedience, brain damage and death?” (pg. 96)

Cassandra at the Wedding is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

51 thoughts on “Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

  1. Col

    Really enjoyed your review – even if you hadn’t said you’ve already started to read it a second time your enthusiasm for this book is apparent! I’m impressed that you can go straight into a second read – I’ve been tempted a few times but never done it in case I was disappointed second time round! You’ve made me think next time I get a feel to go straight to a second read I will follow my instincts!!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Col. I’m glad you caught a sense of my enthusiasm for this book as it’s a difficult one to do justice to. I know exactly what you mean about rereading a much-loved book and the worry that it might not be quite as good the second time around. But with this novel, Cassandra is such a complex character that it’s difficult to catch every nuance in a single read. I can see myself revisiting this one again in the years to come!

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    I really wish people would stop doing this to me. I simply do not need any more books round here. I’m assuming that her point of view does have some particular weight of uncomfortable truth, given her name and I’m stating to worry about that wedding….

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Haha! Sorry, to add to you ‘to read’ pile, Gert, but you’re going to have to read this one if you want to find out what happens in the run up to the wedding. I think there is a significance to Cassandra’s name as she’s a bit of a whirlwind, but to reveal any more might spoil the story for you…

      Reply
  3. hastanton

    A brilliant review Jacqui …has really made me want to read the book . I have never read any Dorothy Baker before. Fascinating and thought provoking subject matter .

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Helen. Cassandra is a brilliant book, and I think you’d like it a lot. I only discovered Dorothy Baker when NYRB published Cassandra last year, but she wrote two or three others including a jazz novel, Young Man with a Horn. That’s going on my list!

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    Yes, I also had to laugh at the title of the book, as (the mythical) Cassandra would be presumably be the least welcome guest at a wedding: imagine what she might say!
    Sigh! I’ve added it to my groaning TBR list, because it does sound exactly my kind of read, but really, really, Jacqui, I’ve got to stop!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Indeed! Apologies, Marina, but this novel is a sure-fire winner. One of those books I’d like to press into the hands of friends, any book lover that will give me a minute or two of their time. Cassandra is such a complex character; she’s a mass of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies, totally.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    This has been on the wishlist for some time (I’ve been after a Virago copy) and it sounds like it’ll live up to my expectations. Wonderful review!

    Reply
  6. Emma

    Another one that could be good for my Book Club.
    Thanks for the great review, I also felt your enthusiasm for the book.
    It goes on the TBR (the Eiffel-tower-sized TBR)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I’m so glad to hear that you like the sound of this one. It would make a great choice for book groups as there’s much to discuss. The characterisation is brilliant; there are many facets to Cassandra’s personality, so there’s plenty of scope for people to form different impressions and interpretations of her behaviour. The relationship between the twins is a tangled one, and there’s a lot of interesting material on the subject of identity here. It’s a terrific book, very thought-provoking.

      Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Haha! Sorry about that, but you (along with Guy, Max and Scott) are equally bad for mine! In the Absence of Men is the latest addition to my shopping list. I’m not on Goodreads, not at the moment anyway.

          Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    The interplay and connections between the two sisters sounds fascinating.

    I have read a fair number of fiction books that explore the topic of identity but not so any where the characters are twins.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, the relationship between the two twin sisters is complex and fascinating, and although I’ve barely mentioned Judith in my review, she’s also very interesting and comes with her own insecurities.

      Reply
  8. Elena

    I love the sound of this novel, Jaqui. I came here because the title reminded me of a movie, but after reading your review, I’m afraid I’m mistaken. I love the idea of a Berkeley student and how despite everything she is, her twin must have some very deep connections (both good and bad) to her identitiy.

    I don’t know why, but your review reminded of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. There are two sisters in the book as wel and the dialectics between them as fascinating as in Cassandra at the Wedding.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Glad to hear that you like the sound of this one, Elena. I loved it, as you can probably tell by now. It’s interesting you mention a film because at first I wondered if there was a link between this book and Baumbach’s film Margot at the Wedding. Margot’s story is different to Cassandra’s, but I do wonder if the director came across this book at some point as I can see some loose connections between the themes. Was that the film you were thinking of or did you have a different one in mind?

      I have a copy of The Blind Assassin in my tbr so I must get around to it one of these days, possibly next year just to put a bit of distance between the two.

      Reply
      1. Elena

        I was thinking about Margot at the Wedding now that you mention it! Although I haven’t seen it. And don’t worry, Atwood’s combines much more things than just identity. I don’t think there is a reason to wait if you feel like reading it now.

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          I thought it might be that one, especially as the titles are similar. Thanks for the tip about the Atwood, but I will leave it for a while (and with a mountain of other books in the house I’m not short on other choices!)

          Reply
  9. naomifrisby

    You had me with the first line. I’ve heard lots of mentions of this but I think this is the first review I’ve read of it. It’s definitely high on my list now.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think you’d find this fascinating, Naomi, especially give the complexity of Cassandra’s character. She behaves like a spoilt child at times, but you empathise with her all the way. A wonderful book with plenty to go at, I haven’t covered the half of it here. Would love to hear your perspective on it!

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    If you feel this is one of the best books you’ve read this year that’s a certain recommendation for me. Women in Translation month has made me realise I need to read more female authors.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Nano. It is a good one for book groups, and I’m still thinking about Cassandra! Looking forward to hearing more about how you’re getting on with Mrs Bridge. x

      Reply
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  14. Max Cairnduff

    Well, I’m glad I saved this review, and that you kept prodding me on this one, because it does indeed sound brilliant. Straight on the TBR, definitely.

    NYRB really are bloody good aren’t they?

    Reply
  15. Max Cairnduff

    Hey, I’ve got a Dorothy Baker I just realised. I have her Young Man with a Horn. I hadn’t made the connection. Hm, I must read it then so I can justify reading this (I can’t buy one book by her while another lies unread).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you must read Young Man with a Horn because you need to make way for Cassandra! And you’ll be doing me a favour because I’ve been looking at Young Man, but I’ve yet to see any reviews from anyone I know or trust. I really like the sound of it though as it’s her jazz novel inspired by Bix Beiderbecke, which immediately makes it appealing to me. No rush though, Max, I’m on a book-buying ban at the moment while I try to read twenty books from my TBR! In all seriousness though, I’m glad you like the sound of Cassandra. There’s probably enough material in the novel for a post on Judith, the twin sister, but it’s quite difficult to talk about her section of the book without spoilers.

      Yes, NYRB really are the business. I must have at least fifteen of their titles in my TBR, possibly more. And that new wishlist I’ve started while reading my #TBR20? I might as well call it my NYRB shopping list – the Vivant Denon is there alongside one or two others.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I’m a huge Beiderbecke fan, and didn’t know that, so it does bump it up the pile.

        The book buying ban seems not a bad idea actually. I love the whole blogosphere thing, but one does have to be careful not just to keep buying faster than one can read.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s great. I hope you enjoy it.

          On the book buying thing: yes, absolutely. That’s exactly what’s happened to me over the past two or three years, so I need to focus on the TBR for a while. It’s quite liberating in a way as it’s easy to get distracted by new purchases. Anything that catches my eye is going on a wishlist and I’ll pick my favourites at the end of the twenty. If I read twenty and end up buying five or six, I’ll have cleared a small batch at least.

          Reply
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