Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cassandra at the Wedding - Dorothy Baker

The perfect airplane read for a person en route to a wedding, this tautly written 1962 novel about a woman falling apart, coming home to her family’s ranch to derail her twin sister’s wedding. That’s the summary – but obviously it’s about so much more: about the nature of love and obsession, about identity and the self.

Cassandra Edwards, named for the doomed wailer at the gates of Troy, is a student at Berkley, an “Existentialist-Zen-Marxist, Freudian branch. Deviation, rather.” The reader is fully aware from the beginning that Cassandra feels antagonistically about the wedding – she anticipates duties of “tak[ing] over the bouquet while [Judith] received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it…” She purposefully gets the groom’s name wrong. She plans to stage a “last-minute rescue.”

The isolated family ranch the Edwards family as a self-sufficient unit – emotionally and intellectually. Her alcoholic father, a retired skeptical philosopher who acts as the family’s Socrates, with his wife and daughters as the youths around his feet, is a benign presence, a distant observer. Her wild and carefree mother, a writer whose legacy hangs over Cassandra, is dead. (Cassandra is writing a thesis on the contemporary novel in France, which belongs largely to people her own age, though she’d prefer them to write theses on her.)

Cassandra and Judith circle around each other, Cassandra acting with a lover’s wounded barbs and tentative posturing, Judith watchful. When they discover they have both bought the same white dress for the wedding – convincing their grandmother that they should have dressed alike all their lives as she had wanted and they resisted – Cassandra is shattered. What does this signify for their individuality and their integrity?

Judith, who narrates the second section, is the sane and balanced twin, the responsible sister. But it is Cassandra’s verbal gymnastics and violent thoughts and liquid speech which propel the novel. Cassandra is sharp-tongued, she says things she doesn’t mean; she is spiny and barnacled and “impossible.” She’s had affairs with women (they scare her less than men), but we become aware that since “up to a point they fascinate me” – until she feels imposed upon, until she feels chased – Cassandra’s love ultimately comes from and goes towards Judith, her other self. The novel’s tension comes from this war with the concept and being of twinship. Should she and Judith be one person or two?

Cassandra struggles to emphasize that “More and more earnestly telling me there was nothing here to indicate that we’re too closely tied up, or that we’re really the same person with two heads or any of the things we used to wonder about, and worry about, and secretly feel exultant about.”

But after the affair with the dress, she realizes and tries to convince Judith that “…an integer can’t exist without integrity. That’s what we are, together – a whole being, a fabric, a complex – we’re completed.” Judith’s decision to marry fractures this completion and dislodges Cassandra. She has nowhere to go but “fly apart,” though she knows that this will separate her even farther from Jude.

Baker’s style is infused with electricity, tension, and a West-Coast world-weariness (“…[I] scraped the plate and rinsed the cups and the glass and put them back in the dishwasher. It wasn’t easy, but nothing is.”) It’s a novel filled with light and despair, anguish and pathos and extreme feeling. It made me think of the film Rachel’s Getting Married, another story of a conniving, distraught sister and the issues of family history, responsibilities, and relationships that spark and collide at significant events.

Read Dorothy Baker. I wholly agree with the reviewer calling Cassandra at the Wedding a modern American classic.

(And, if there are doubts, I can happily say that at no point did I derail the Tuttle-Tomaschke wedding.)

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