Tag Archives: Dorothy Baker

After Claude by Iris Owens

Ever since I read Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding back in the autumn of 2014, I’ve been searching for something similar, another hidden gem of a book with a spiky (anti-)heroine in the central role. While Iris Owens’ striking novel After Claude – first published in 1973 – doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Cassandra, for the majority of its 200 pages it comes pretty close. The story centres on a trainwreck of a woman, so outrageously forthright in her interactions with those around her that there are times when she makes Cassandra seem like a relatively normal, well-adjusted human being.

The character in question is Harriet, a fiercely intelligent lady with a razor-sharp line in cutting one-liners. The trouble is, she also displays a terrible lack of self-awareness and understanding of her impact on others. In her own mind, Harriet is a smart, considerate, lively companion; but in reality, the situation couldn’t be more different. She is lazy, rude, bitchy and relentlessly argumentative, always believing herself to be in the right whatever the circumstances or topic under discussion.

When we first meet Harriet, she is in the throes of reflecting on her very recent break-up with Claude, ‘the French rat,’ the man she has been living with for the past six months. The story is told through a series of flashbacks covering various timepoints in Harriet’s recent life – more specifically, the days leading up to her split with Claude, one or two interactions with her best friend, Maxine, and a disastrous evening spent with Claude and his friend, a French playboy names Charles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the acrimonious nature of their break-up, Harriet paints a rather scathing picture of Claude. As far as she sees it, Claude – an assistant director of a French television news crew based in the US – is the somewhat uncommunicative, artistic type, often conveying his responses via facial expressions instead of words, especially where women are concerned.

He could talk for hours, days, but only on carefully selected topics, such as every disappointing course of his most recent meal. But discourse? Converse? Exchange ideas? Never, and certainly not with that brain-damaged segment of the population called women. (p.10)

The problem is, Harriet’s innate tendency to respond to virtually every comment with a counter-argument or snide remark has succeeded in alienating Claude to the point of no return. (The novel opens with an extended quarrel between Harriet and Claude on the artistic merits or not of a movie they’ve just seen, ‘a sort of Communist version of Christ’s life,’ as Harriet puts it. Naturally, she hated the film, and she outlines her objections with great gusto. The whole exchange is both painfully funny and sharply acerbic, a combination that sets the tone for the book itself.) Here’s a brief excerpt from one of their exchanges shortly before the split – Harriet is the first to speak.

“Are you hungry?” The creep still didn’t answer. The fact is that Claude, not having been raised by kidnappers, was habituated to regular meals, not scavenging.

“I’m not hungry.” It walked! It talked! It went to the kitchen and got itself a can of beer.

“I can’t find the opener,” he complained in that same hurt voice I’d been tolerating for two full weeks.

“Why don’t you telephone Paul Newman? I read he always wears a can opener around his neck, like a cross. Maybe he’ll lend you his.” (p. 19)

Shortly afterwards, Claude hits Harriet with the sucker punch. He wants her out of his flat by the following Monday, belongings and all; she has simply become far too difficult to live with.

“Me a bore?” I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.

“When you get an idea in your head, when you have an opinion, which is always, you’ve got to make a speech about it, not once, but ten times. If anyone manages to break in, you bury them; you grind them into little pieces with your big mouth. I’ve had it, Harriet. I want you out.” (p. 22)

The weekend ultimately ends with Harriet being driven to the Chelsea Hotel by Charles and Claude, but not before she has had an opportunity to change the locks on Claude’s apartment and been tackled by the police for trespassing on her (former) boyfriend’s property. Quite an eventful few days all in all.

Interspersed with the recollections of the dying days with Claude are passages on the only other significant relationships in Harriet’s life – those with her friends (or in the first case, ex-friend) Rhoda-Regina and Maxine. Here’s Harriet on Rhoda-Regina, her former friend from school, the girl she went travelling with some five years ago.

Rhoda-Regina had been my oldest and best friend. I’d known her almost as long as I’d known myself. We’d gone through school together, except that she, being insecure as a female, had gone on to collecting degrees. We’d sailed to Europe together, me to stay for five crucial years, during which I’d grown out of my Brooklyn chrysalis into a creature of indeterminate origins, while Rhoda-Regina had barely lasted through the summer, rushing back to her beloved highway-robber analyst like Dracula making dawn tracks to his coffin. (pp. 67-68)

Back in the story’s present day, Harriet has now succeeded in destroying any relationship she ever had with Rhoda-Regina as a result of her unreasonable behaviour as a tenant. After returning from Europe following a crisis some months earlier, Harriet turned to her old pal R-R, who agreed to take her in for a little while. Unfortunately, after another outrageous and terribly misjudged incident (this one designed to encourage the perennially uptight and stingy R-R to chill out a little), Harriet found herself out on the streets. It was at this point that she met Claude for the first time as his apartment just happened to be in the same block as Rhoda-Regina’s. So, for the last six months, Harriet has been running the gauntlet on entering and exiting the premises, desperately trying to avoid any unpleasant confrontations with R-R, her bête noire on the ground floor.

Harriet also bitches about her current best friend (quite possibly her only friend), the wealthy and pampered Maxine – both behind her back and directly to her face. Here’s a typical example – Maxine is the first to speak.

 “You’re lucky to have such a wonderful skin,” she crooned, but since she didn’t look up from her gold compact, I couldn’t tell which of us was supposed to be so lucky. She glanced up. “Not a wrinkle or a blemish. What do you use?”

“Sperm,” I said, damned if I’d let her drag me into one of her beauty commercials that begin with compliments and finish with her imploring me to consider plastic surgery. (p. 46)

And here’s one of Harriet’s personal observations on Maxine, so typical of Iris Owens’ ability to pepper her writing with pointed one-liners.

There was a sufficiency of rhinestones in her thong platforms to refinance the purchase of Manhattan. (p. 45)

In essence, After Claude is a character study, a portrait of a complex woman who says what she thinks without filtering anything or sparing anyone else’s feelings. She is uber-demanding, sarcastic and combative – and yet, underneath it all, there is a vulnerable, insecure woman, someone who is terrified of being on her own, especially if it means having to survive without a man. (There are several points in the novel when Harriet tries desperately to cling on to Claude, even though she knows in her heart of hearts that their relationship is over.)

As the story proceeded to unfold, I found myself growing increasingly fond of Harriet in spite of her many flaws and annoying habits. Yes, she is a car crash on legs, but she’s also very sharp and witty with it. During the novel, she turns her irreverent gaze on a number of stereotypes – the fussy and pretentious playboy, the self-satisfied domestic goddess, the bimbo air stewardess (who really does come across as a name-dropping airhead) – all to very good effect. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the final section of the book, in which Harriet gets involved with the members of a drugged-up hippie sex cult (very 1960s/early ‘70s), I loved the rest of it.

To finish, I’ll leave the last word to Harriet. Here she is responding to a taxi driver’s comments on her resemblance to Anne Bancroft (I guess he must have had the character of Mrs. Robinson in mind here).

“I bet a lot of people have told you, you look like Anne Bancroft,” he said, gazing into his crystal ball.

“Why? Has she been complaining to you lately?” (p. 91)

After Claude was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding was one of my reading highlights of 2014 and ever since then I’ve been looking forward to trying her debut, the jazz novel, Young Man with a Horn. I’m glad to say it did not disappoint, far from it. This novel is a modest triumph, finely crafted and deeply felt.


First published in 1938, Young Man was inspired by the music, but not the life, of Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist and pianist of the Jazz Age. The novel opens with a prologue in which an unnamed narrator, possibly an observer or biographer, offers an overview of the story of Rick Martin’s life. Rick was a jazz musician, a young white guy with a rare talent for creating some of the sweetest, most imaginative music known to man. But we know from the outset that Rick’s life is over, he’s ‘washed up and gone’. His passion for music was so great that he struggled to keep pace with his own ability – here’s how the short prologue ends:

Our man is, I hate to say it, an artist, burdened with that difficult baggage, the soul of an artist. But he hasn’t got the thing that should go with it – and which I suppose seldom does – the ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be. And he goes to pieces, but not in any small way. He does it so thoroughly that he kills himself doing it. (pg. 12)

The remainder of the novel is divided into four sections, each one covering a key phase in Rick’s story.

Orphaned as a baby, young Rick is raised by his (largely absent) older sister and brother. By the age of fourteen, Rick is skipping school and teaching himself to play the piano at the All Souls’ Mission church in Los Angeles. Around this time, he meets an eighteen-year-old black guy, Smoke Jordan, at the local Pool Hall. Rick is fascinated by Smoke’s natural sense of rhythm; he can see it in the way Smoke moves across the floor as he sweeps up at Gandy’s Pool Hall. At first, Smoke is a little wary of getting too close to Rick, but a lasting friendship soon develops between the pair as they bond over a mutual love of music.

First there was his absorbing interest in the music, and next there was his deep feeling for Smoke Jordan, the only person in the world he knew and loved. Or it may have been first Smoke and then the music. Whichever came first, the two had to be bracketed together. (pg. 38)

This deep relationship between the two young men (one white, one black) is one of the most touching and affectionate features of the novel, it’s beautifully rendered by Baker.

Smoke and Rick spend their nights sitting outside the Cotton Club listening to Jeff Williams and his Four Mutts. This band is hot, the players know what they’re about both collectively and singly, and Rick soaks it all up. Smoke knows the band and one evening the two boys are invited into the Club. Rick is in his in element; he is entranced by the music, not only the piano but the trumpet too. The way Art Hazard plays that horn simply blows him away.

It may have been the gin; something had him fixed up so that he was playing constantly right up to the place where genius and madness grapple before going their separate ways. It was Hazard’s night. (pg.53)

Jeff Williams agrees to teach Rick a thing or two about the piano and Art Hazard does the same with the horn. Rick’s world revolves around the music. He practices piano in the afternoons followed by a couple of hours on the trumpet, and in the evenings he heads to the Cotton Club to hear Jeff’s band. Rick just gets better and better; he’s on his way.

By the age of twenty, Rick is playing first trumpet in Jack Stuart’s dance band for a summer season in Balboa. Jack, a traditionalist by nature, wants the band to play straightforward arrangements of crowd-pleasing tunes, but Rick is itching to improvise a little; he needs an outlet for his creative juices. There’s a great scene where Rick gets to play things his own way for one dance number. He doesn’t show off, he’s respectful about it and lets the music speak for itself; out comes a sound that ‘could be tender and still hold its own shape’. Four choruses later and Rick has the crowd, they won’t leave the dancefloor. From that point on, every fourth number features a Rick Martin trumpet solo.

The final section of the novel moves to New York where Rick shifts up a gear to play in Lee Valentine’s band. Four years on and he’s working in Phil Morrison’s outfit, the leading society orchestra in NYC, playing hotels, drawing a crowd and earning more money than he has time to spend. When his stints with the orchestra are through for the night, Rick heads over to Louie Galba’s, a musicians’ hangout. Here he is reunited with Smoke, some of the guys from Jeff Williams’s band and other great musicians he has met along the way. By the age of twenty-four, Rick has become the big name; he’s the leading trumpet player in America.

It is here in New York that the tension between Rick’s creative drive and his ability to keep his life on an even keel starts to increase. His personal life gets complicated when he meets and falls for Amy, a bright and intelligent society girl.

When she came into a room, Rick felt it and his knees went cold. When she bent her head to light a cigarette from the match he held, he was lost until the flame burned his finger. When she stood in her long white robe in front of the fireplace, propping an elbow against the mantel and crossing her feet in the classic attitude of insouciance, he couldn’t let himself look at her; the sight of her twisted him. (pg. 137)

I love that quote, it could have come straight out of a Chandler novel (or the film, Casablanca).

Rick and Amy are happy for a little while, but it doesn’t last. Rick continues to push, to give himself up to the music, and when the fall comes he takes it hard.

Young Man with a Horn is a very fine novel; there is much to enjoy here. Baker writes so vividly and realistically about jazz musicians and their music; it’s one of the many pleasures of this book. As an example, here’s a passage from the scene where Rick is inside the Cotton Club listening to Jeff’s band.

Jeff led them to it with four bars in the key, and then the three horns came in together, held lightly to a slim melody by three separate leashes. Then Jeff left the rhythm to the drums, and the piano became the fourth voice, and from then on harmony prevailed in strange coherence, each man improvising wildly on his own and the four of them managing to fit it together and tightly. Feeling ran high, and happy inspiration followed happy inspiration to produce counterpoint that you’d swear somebody had sat down and worked out note by note on nice clean manuscript paper. But nobody had; it came into the heads of four men and out again by way of three horns and one piano. (pg. 49)

Baker also nails the ambience of the Harlem speakeasies, the clubs and hangouts where players congregate after hours. She captures the bond and sense of kinship between these musicians so well. At a time when racial tensions remain present in America, it’s refreshing to see just how natural it is for Rick and one or two other white musicians to jam alongside Smoke and his compatriots.

Ultimately though, this is the story of a young man’s fall from grace, of an artist so talented he couldn’t contain it.

In Rick Martin’s music there was, from the first, an element of self-destruction. He expected too much from it and he came to it with too great a need. (pg. 11)

Even though we know the arc of Rick’s life from the opening pages, the narrative remains compelling and engaging to the very end. I’ll finish with a favourite quote from the novel, one that conveys something of the wistful tone of the closing section.

They played hard and they played well and it wasn’t all solo either. Toward daylight they had built up a blend of melody and harmony that was older and emotionally deeper than the brave virtuosity of the first hours. It was the music of men who look backward with wisdom rather than forward with faith. They were tired now, and dependent on each other, not so ruggedly individualistic. They brought the dawn in with sad and mellow music. (pg. 154)

Young Man with A Horn is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.


I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

First published in 1962, Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding will certainly make my end-of-year highlights, and quite possibly my all-time highlights too — it really is that good.

As the 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, Cassandra seems in two minds as to whether to take the trip, and when 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 to Bakersfield we learn more about her relationship with Judith. At some point in the not too distant past, the twins had shared an apartment in Berkeley, seemingly content to live their lives for each other with little need for outsiders. But Judith subsequently departed for New York, leaving Cassandra cut adrift and in a state of procrastination over her thesis on French novels. (Moreover, for several years, Cassandra has also been living in the shadow of her deceased mother, Jane, a famous writer and influential figure in the twins’ lives.)


Identity is a key theme in this novel. For example, when the twins were growing up, their parents — Jane in particular — refused to have the girls dress alike, favouring individualism over any mirroring between the two. As Cassandra tells her grandmother at a later stage in the book, “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)

Despite her parents’ best efforts, there are hints that Cassandra is losing a sense of her own identity. During her journey home for the wedding, Cassandra stops as a bar where she catches herself in the mirror; nevertheless, it is not her own face that she sees in that image, but Judith’s, gazing thoughtfully from 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. (pg. 8)

Baker continues to develop this theme of identity with great skill as the novel progresses. When Cassandra arrives home, she is greeted by her amiable, brandy-soaked father, her slightly befuddled but well-meaning grandmother, Rowena, and her sister Judith, of course. In this scene, Cassandra asks her father what he thinks of Judith’s fiancé, Jack Finch. Naturally Judith is not present when the following conversation takes place, an exchange that ends with Cassandra questioning her sense of identity :

“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 fascinating yet very complex character – possibly one of the most complicated I have ever encountered in fiction. She is intelligent and precise, and at times charming witty and loving. But she can also be domineering, manipulative, self-absorbed and cruel. Her thoughts and actions are full of contradictions, and there are instances when she tries to delude herself, possibly to avoid the truth. At heart, Cassandra is emotionally dependent on Judith, and deep down her sister’s earlier departure to New York 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, so how could Judith ever imagine her life being any other way? 

As the story unfolds, it appears as if Cassandra is all set to derail her sister’s wedding, tapping into the reckless, self-centred facets of her character. 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 own 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.

That’s probably all I should reveal about the plot, save to say that there’s plenty of drama to come. In the second section of the book, Judith takes up the role of narrator and we hear a very different voice, more mature and measured in tone.

In some respects, Cassandra and the Wedding is novel about the process of maturing as a young adult, finding a sense of self that feels comfortable and true. 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, adding another layer of complexity to the twins’ relationship. There are allusions to Greek mythology; the girls’ father is a retired philosopher, and their names are not insignificant. Moreover, the novel’s ending has an air of ambiguity about it, one that makes it all the more intriguing to revisit.

With her distinctive voice and complex personality, Cassandra is one of my favourite characters from literature — and while the novel exposes her, replete with flaws, Baker adds some wonderful comic touches to elevate the mood. 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 (and more recently by Daunt Books); personal copy.