Friday, 11 December 2009

Cassandra at the Wedding


Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker: Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-wracked, miserable. At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut. Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding.

Dorothy Baker's entrancing tragicomic novella follows an unpredictable course of events in which her heroine appears variously as conniving, self-aware, pitiful, frenzied, absurd, and heartbroken—at once utterly impossible and tremendously sympathetic. Cassandra reckons with her complicated feelings about the sister who she feels owes it to her to be her alter ego; with her father, a brandy-soaked retired professor of philosophy; and with the ghost of her dead mother, as she struggles to come to terms with the only life she has.

First published in 1962, Cassandra at the Wedding is a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve. Like the fiction of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri, it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind.

I wrote last week that I was intending to indulge in some themed reading at the weekend as I was attending a wedding (two friends - beautiful day) and I did; I opted for Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker. I decided on this one because it was the title that most intrigued me, I had been tempted by it since reading Verity's review this summer and, moreover, it had been some time since I read any of my green Virago Modern Classics (or non-green, come to that). So, Cassandra at the Wedding it was. I felt it worthwhile to include the synopsis again to firstly recount the key plot points and also for the comparison with Jhumpa Lahiri that is given; after also reading Lahiri recently, I can testify that Dorothy Baker is likewise a "master stylist", skilled at evoking emotion.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a novel of heightened emotion; it is intense. The narrative is written in a conversational style that is inclusive and yet also overwhelming; Cassandra's narration is so emotionally-charged that it is a relief when Judith narrates a section in the second half, before a calmer, more focused and less passionate Cassandra resumes the telling. The intensity of the novel is employed also through the short time period of events -two days- and a stifling heat is described that also evokes a sense of claustrophobia within the text; these literary devices are highly effective as we are taken on an emotional rollercoaster of a ride with Cassandra. Also indicative of Baker's sheer talent is that never once is the word "twin" used yet Cassandra and Judith are twins and that is very much conveyed without using the term, for example, "I looked ... in a blue mirror .... It was the face of my sister Judith" and "It was on our birth cerificates that way. The one named Cassandra was two ounces heavier and eleven minutes older than the one named Judith." This is a novel about the struggle for identity especially when you have someone who looks identical to you and who you sometimes think is you; it is about familial and emotional dependence and an exceptional study of jealousy. Cassandra at the Wedding will resonate with anyone who has a sister, not necessarily a twin, who understands the sense of moving on and moving away and grieving for a childhood that was so much simpler.

Cassandra at the Wedding is not a plot-driven novel but an emotion-based one that has wonderful moments of wit and wryness. Cassandra is both an unreliable narrator and a sympathetic one; she was an intriguing character and one that I enjoyed immensely. The rapid and pithy dialogue between Cassandra and Judith is like an energetic, competitive game of tennis and a joy to read, if a little difficult to keep up with as they parry back and forth. This book is engaging as well as a great study in writing.

A favourite passage and example of the style:

I'm not, at heart, a jumper; it's not my sort of thing … 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, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take 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 of forever holding it.


14 comments:

Vivienne said...

You have helped to develop a need for Persephone books and now you have brought back by my need for the green Virago Modern Classics. You are no good for my purse. This one looks very inviting and sounds like a fabulous story.

Aarti said...

Ooh, I am about to open a tragicomic as well, Fun Home! This one sounds great, too. Such a perfectly timed review for me :-)

Steph said...

This sounds wonderful! I saw a Virago Modern Classic while at the bookstore yesterday - alas, I was only buying gifts for others, so I refrained from picking it up. But this one sounds really fantastic, and I am going to do everything in my power to seek it out!

Paperback Reader said...

Vivienne, I'm no good for my purse either! I am addicted to Persephones and green Virago Modern Classics. This one is one of the most enjoyable I have read and will remain a favourite.

Aarti, Fun Home is fantastic although very different! I hope that you enjoy it too.

Steph, this is a very interesting book and I really admired the style and unique content. You'll probably find it easy to find as Dorothy Baker is an American author, one of the few on the Virago Modern Classics list (along with classic women writers such as Edith Wharton and Eudora Welty). It is still in print in the UK but with a horribly unappealing cover.

The Literary Stew said...

I've had this on my wishlist for ages but haven't gotten a copy yet. Did you know that NYRB publishes it too? For those looking for it, those might be easier to find than a Virago copy.

Rachel (Book Snob) said...

I read this about a year ago and I can still remember how tense it made me feel - such a good portrayal of the sometimes stifling closeness and jealousies that can develop between sisters - mine is seven years older than me and we are in no way identical but I could identify with Cassandra and Judith's relationship a lot. Great review Claire - it's also reminded me that I need to crack open a VMC soon.

Kals said...

I like the passage you've quoted - lovely style :) But I'm not in the mood for tragicomic novels right now. Will probably add it to my TBR anyway =)

Paperback Reader said...

Astrid, I didn't know about NYRB publishing it so thanks for the info. I hope you find a copy soon as it's a great VMC.

Thanks, Rachel. I really enjoyed this one and looking back in my reading journal it has been months since I cracked open a VMC (and that one was a Persephone that was also a VMC). I foresee in the New Year returning to my beloved green and grey books.

The age difference between my sister and I is so much more so we have a very different relationship and yet I still related.

Kals, the style in which it is written is wonderful and unique. I'd definitely add this one to your TBR to seek out in the future.

Darlene said...

Ooooh, I started off thinking that this wasn't for me and by the end of your review I was very intrigued! You've done a fabulous job of hooking me in Claire. That is one freaky cover though.

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, now I've hooked you, I need to reel you in! This is a very well-realised study of the relationships between women and their insecurities, jealousies and search for self; I think you would enjoy it.

The cover is fabulous and very Gothic but bears no relation to its contents! Far preferable though to the new Virago cover...

savidgereads said...

The line "an emotion-based one that has wonderful moments of wit and wryness" definately sold it to me!

anothercookiecrumbles said...

This sounds wonderful. I must keep an eye out for it.

I'm sure i've mentioned this before, but the more reviews of VMCs I see, the more I want to read them all!

verity said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it and finally got to read it. Hope you get time for many more green and grey reads in the new year!

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, that sells books to me too - I love emotionally books that have some humour!

anothercookie, I'm the same - Verity's Virago Venture does me little favours! This is definitely a green VMC to look out for.

Verity, I loved it! I am making it my mission to read more greens and greys as soon as I can.