Cassandra at the Wedding - Book of the Month
by Dorothy Baker
Cassandra, a graduate student, and Judith, a musician, are identical twins in their early twenties who were brought up in one of those bohemian, intellectual households (mum was a writer, dad a professor of philosophy) where you get the feeling that, although they had fun, they were never really treated like children. When the girls were little they were precocious, inseparable but encouraged to develop their own personalities – they were never for example dressed identically, much to the dismay of their grandmother. As young women they lived together, sharing an apartment in Berkeley with the vast Boesendorfer grand piano that they bought between them. When Judith moved to New York, the piano remained as an inescapable reminder to Cassandra of her beloved twin.
The first and last parts of the book, which is in three sections, are narrated by Cassandra. As the story begins, she is driving north to the family ranch for the wedding of Judith to Jack Finch, “a nice young doctor from Connecticut”, in New York. As Cassandra drives she reflects on Judith’s upcoming nuptials and she is not at all pleased.
“….. I was thinking this time of black widow spiders, which gran also tried to teach us to beware of as deadly. But they never have shown any interest in biting anyone or causing trouble. All on earth they want is to spin a good thick web in a woodpile or under a chair, get rid of their husbands and live in peace. People again.”
We learn early on that she is neurotic, dependent on sleeping pills, consulting a psychiatrist, prefers women to men, is utterly brilliant and, as an aspiring writer, feels she will never live up to her late mother. On arrival at the ranch, she finds her brandy-soaked dad and bourgeois granny in favour of the wedding; though granny would have liked more time in order to invite all her bridge-playing buddies. Their acceptance infuriates Cassandra even more. In fact, dad just wants to booze and philosophise and he and granny don’t seem to be aware of Cassandra’s turmoil. For her, Judith’s impending marriage seems like the loss of half of herself.
Although she’s selfish and arrogant, we really feel for Cassandra as she jokes, wise-cracks and drinks her way to (almost) acceptance. In the third section of the book events reach a dramatic crescendo and Cassandra eventually spirals out of control to such an extent that her shrink has to be summoned from Berkeley in the middle of the night.
First published in 1962, CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING is a tour de force. The writing is sharp and clever, the narrative thought-provoking and moving. If you haven’t discovered this brilliant novel already, suggest it for your next bookgroup meeting. You won’t be sorry.
Published by NYRB – 239pp.