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.
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.