October 2004

Kris Rothstein

fiction

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Lately I’ve been reading classic American authors whom I had previously neglected. In the novels of Sylvia Plath, Patricia Highsmith and Carson McCullers I discovered an elegant simplicity of language and an uneasy concern with the psychology of daily life. I found these same elements in Cassandra at the Wedding, an obscure gem from the early 1960s. Though this novel includes many well-worn literary themes, Dorothy Baker employs each with an unusual humour and intensity while maintaining a story that’s entertaining to read.

Cassandra Edwards returns home from Berkeley to her family ranch for the wedding of her twin sister Judith. She is reluctant but is not quite sure why. Slowly Cassandra reveals her emotional dependence on her sister and her dismay that an intruder is breaking their bond. She also begins to show her irrationality and her ability to constantly rework the truth. While Baker is not the first author to introduce an unreliable narrator, she does so in a subtle, skilful manner. Despite Cassandra’s awareness of her manic failure to cope with change, her thoughts seem reasonable and rational both to her and to the reader. Even her defence of her most outrageous action is relayed in a calm and sensible voice. It is not until the narrative passes to Judith that the world becomes simpler, and Cassandra’s behaviour is exposed as dark and manipulative.

Cassandra is surrounded by women who all reflect aspects of her own personality. She aspires to the stable normality of her sister and the determination of her grandmother while being fascinated by the dazzling charisma of her deceased mother. Cassandra and Judith’s father is a brilliant philosopher, but he’s unable to function in society or to pass his knowledge on to anyone outside his family. Both sisters have inherited intelligence and a love of learning but Cassandra is unable to direct her talents and create a mature life for herself. Much of her unease in only alluded to, including her struggle with her thesis, her relationships with other women and her bond with her psychiatrist. Baker throws us in at the deep end, assuming a knowledge of the characters and their histories and allowing readers to fill in the blanks.

While doubling and the strange destiny of twins are common metaphors, few authors probe the questions at the heart of Baker’s novel. How do twins reconcile the bond that both pulls them together and drives them to confirm their difference? After a period of independence in their twenties, my own great-aunts chose a life together, a decision which steered them towards tragedy. Through Cassandra and Judith I can imagine them at a crossroads in their young lives, with joy and danger lurking ahead. While a life of feverish solitude appeals to Cassandra, she never loses her satirical sense of humour and her awareness of the inconsistency of her desires.

Many novels about the turmoil of family are mired in cliches, but in Cassandra at the Wedding the domestic setting is a powerful microscope. Judith and Cassandra are compelling characters, each admirably drawn. Their voices are enthralling and persuasive, and Baker’s prose is effortless and delicate in its illustration of difference.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
New York Review of Books
ISBN 1590171128
241 pages