A Review of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding (by Bethany)

(Cassandra at the Wedding cover image

The New York Review of Books Classics Series really is a wonderful resource for people who like to read. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a series that resurrects high-quality books from all around the world that for whatever reason fizzled out after they were published. The books are distinctive-looking, with a painting or photograph on the cover and the title and author in a square in the middle of the cover, and each book contains a foreword or afterword by a contemporary author. Coincidentally, Jill’s most recent review (of Stoner) and my review for today are both of novels from this series.

Cassandra at the Wedding opens with Cassandra Edwards turning in her final spring semester grades at U.C. Berkeley and contemplating the Golden Gate Bridge. She is about to leave Berkeley and drive to her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierras (the nearest large towns mentioned are Fresno and Bakersfield, if that helps to orient you) to be the maid of honor in her identical twin sister Judith’s wedding. Until a year before the novel opens, Cassandra and Judith lived together in the apartment in Berkeley that Cassandra now lives in alone. They completed their undergraduate degrees there, and then Cassandra stayed on to do a master’s degree in English and Judith went to New York to study music at Julliard. Judith is a pianist, and when she still lived in Berkeley she and Cassandra chipped in on an enormous piano that they were able to buy at a discount. With Judith gone, the behemoth of a piano still takes up most of the space in their small living room and is a constant reminder of Judith.

Cassandra’s ruminations on the Golden Gate Bridge are part of a grand tradition, which is to say that she is considering suicide. “The bridge looked good again,” Baker writes. “The sun was on it, and it took on the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium” (4). We also learn that Cassandra is seeing a psychiatrist who “assures [her] that [she] is not at heart a jumper,” that she is “given to conjecture only” (4). But it’s significant that these are the thoughts in her mind when she packs her car and leaves for the ranch several days ahead of schedule.

The back cover of the novel tells us that Cassandra is gay. The novel itself, however, never makes this statement overtly and only hints at it two or three times. At the beginning of the novel, Cassandra refuses to answer her phone because someone named Liz Janko has been calling her nonstop for several weeks. This detail is not enough evidence to conclude that Cassandra is gay, and if the book jacket hadn’t outed her I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to Liz Janko (who does return later in the novel, but equally inconclusively). Later, though, when Cassandra is embarrassed because she accidentally chose the same dress as Judith (more on this in a moment), her grandmother says, “I’ve never been able to see anything wrong with your being – ,” and Cassandra replies, “Don’t say it. Don’t say that word.” Her grandmother’s response is “Nobody else who is one feels this way about it” (100). So you see – this is the kind of evidence I’m working with when I try to come to my own conclusions about Cassandra’s sexual orientation.

Of course, what’s undoubtedly the case is that when this novel was originally published in 1968, the book jacket did not say anything about Cassandra being gay, and these oblique references were there for the taking if a reader’s life experience and worldview made him/her open to them, but they can camouflage themselves into their surroundings if needed. Later, Judith tells Cassandra that she was terribly lonely when they lived together because Cassandra was always out doing vague things (I didn’t mark the quotation and can’t find it now, but it was the same sort of remark that their grandmother made above, something along the lines of “You were always out figuring out what you were like.”) – and, again, this is as direct as this novel ever gets on this subject.

I do want to back up a little and give you some summary, because the days and nights surrounding Judith’s wedding are just wonderfully done and also wonderfully complicated, complicated in the sense that a Shakespeare comedy is complicated. Raised on their family’s ranch in rural central California, Judith and Cassandra were never really integrated into the culture of their town. They attended the local school and were on its swim team, but at home their lives revolved around their father, a philosophy professor who saw himself as sort of a Socrates figure and always wanted to be surrounded by his disciples as he held court about classical philosophy and the nature of the soul and the universe. In his case, his disciples were Cassandra and Judith – who remember these sessions fondly – and their mother, Jane, who is now dead. Jane’s character is hard to get a handle on. We’re told in the novel’s very first paragraph that Jane died “much too young but [Cassandra is] not sure she thought so” (3), whatever that means; Jane’s death is also one source of the melancholy that surrounds Cassandra’s father, who is also an extremely heavy drinker.

Both of Cassandra and Judith’s parents refused to dress them identically when they were children, for reasons that are never clearly explained – although it seems to me that neither of these characters would be likely to appreciate “cuteness” in any form, and identically-dressed children certainly qualify as cute. Their grandmother, however, did push them to dress alike: “She loves us – she’s the soul of generosity – but there was a time – we were around eight – when she even wanted to buy us a pair of accordions and have us work up a little act. I remember she had us pretty much interested. But Jane hit the ceiling and Papa went through the roof” (100). This backstory makes it all the more complicated when Cassandra and Judith discover that they have purchased the same dress for the wedding. Here’s what happens: Cassandra goes shopping in Berkeley and chooses what she describes as a simple white dress. My own inner monologue – which is not especially well-informed about wedding etiquette but does tend to retain little snippets of things it hears – expected that this would be seen as a violation of tradition, since bridesmaids (I’m pretty sure) are not supposed to wear white. Cassandra assumes that Judith’s dress will be lacy and elaborate, and she thinks her simple white dress will complement Judith’s perfectly. In other words, she’s not up on wedding etiquette, but she did think over her choice and try to do the right thing. When we learn soon after Cassandra’s arrival at the ranch that Judith found what she describes as the perfect simple dress for the wedding, I knew what was coming, and I was right – they bought the same dress.

I really do want to keep going with this summary, but I also have to stop and tell you that the dialogue I quoted above – in which Cassandra and her grandmother talk about “what she is” – emerges out of the discovery of the identical dresses. I’m realizing now as I reread this scene that the reference to Cassandra’s homosexuality is even more oblique than I thought. The following interior monologue takes place immediately following the grandmother’s statement that “nobody else who is one feels this way about it”: “… gran said in the aggrieved voice she always uses for this particular conversation, the conversation about our condition, so to call it. I’m sorry to grieve her or deny her her pleasure, but I have to make things clear, because no one of my grandmother’s temperament and sensibilities can understand what it’s like to be bound to a way of life like ours – a situation we inwardly glory in, but one that we have to protect at every turn from a menacing mass of clichés that are thrust on us from the outside. To be like us isn’t easy, it requires constant attention to detail. I’ve thought it out; we’ve thought it out together. I’ve tried to explain to my doctor that it’s a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project” (100).

Can anyone make sense of this? Is this a paragraph about Cassandra (and some other person or people that she refers to as “us”: her lover? gay women in general?) being gay? Or is it about Cassandra and Judith being identical twins? Does the pronoun “one” (in boldface above) refer to “lesbian” or to “an identical twin”? I have no idea! But this is how complicated this novel is – complicated in a very, very good way (and I haven’t even gotten to the use of the word “bridge” in this passage – how interesting it is in the context of Cassandra’s earlier meditations on a certain bridge). I don’t think it’s an accident that Cassandra’s identity as a gay woman and her identity as an identical twin are the elements that are conflated here. Cassandra is clearly not comfortable about being gay, and it’s suggested (though never stated) that Cassandra hopes that being a twin will offer her a “free pass” out of being gay – i.e. it will let her opt out of the female routines of courtship and marriage without leaving her in solitude.

So anyway… Cassandra comes home a few days earlier than expected, and on her first night home, she and Judith and their father stay up late drinking and reprising their roles as philosopher and disciples. Eventually their father goes to bed and the sisters go to their room, where they continue drinking and talking. This scene is not narrated in the novel: we learn about it as a result of its consequences the next morning, when Cassandra wakes up believing that Judith has agreed not to get married. Cassandra insists that she persuaded her sister that the only way they can both be happy is to be together – that they are somehow different from other people and are spiritually yoked to one another. The plan, according to Cassandra, is that she will pick Judith’s fiancé, Jack, up at the airport later that day and explain to him that the wedding is off. Judith remembers some details of this conversation but insists that she fell asleep before Cassandra did and Cassandra only thought she had agreed to this plan. Both exhausted and hung over, they have a terrible fight, of course, and Judith leaves to pick Jack up at the airport, and they sit down to eat in a café and Judith tells Jack everything that happened. Knowing all the awkwardness that awaits them at home, they decide to go to the courthouse right then and get married. That way, the deed will be done and Cassandra (whom Judith seems to find almost irresistibly persuasive) will not be able to say or do anything to prevent their marriage.

While Judith is gone, however, Cassandra attempts suicide: she takes a large dose of the sleeping pills she is prescribed for anxiety and settles back on her bed to die. When Judith and Jack return to the ranch, they find the twins’ father and grandmother frantically trying to unlock Cassandra’s door from the outside because she is not responding to their knocks and calls. Jack is a doctor, so when they open the door and find Cassandra naked and unconscious, he takes over and begins life-saving procedures. But let’s think about this scene for a moment: it’s Judith and Jack’s wedding night, even if no one knows they are married except for the two of them, and since they did not have sex before marriage this night should be a true “consummation” of their marriage and their love. Instead, Jack spends the night performing artificial respiration and other hands-on medical procedures on a naked woman who is the identical twin of his new wife. How awkward and tense and yet strangely hilarious can a scene be? This novel is a great one to study if someone wants to learn about comic plotting – it’s flawless.

I’ll end the summary here – this is not where the book ends, and there’s a lot I’ve left out. I highly recommend this novel – it’s quick and lively and engrossing, and even though Cassandra isn’t the most likeable of protagonists, I sympathized with her strongly and found her a lot more appealing than Judith, who on any objective level is the “victim” in this novel – the reasonable one who just wants to be married to someone other than her sister. Dorothy Baker is smart and funny and highly aware of how comedy works, and I am grateful to the New York Review of Books Classics Series for bringing this novel back from obscurity.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Dorothy Baker, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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