You're a twin --- so close to your sister that she moved across the country.
Now she's getting married to a man you've never met and cutting the cord for good.
And you're her only bridesmaid.
In the universe we now inhabit --- the urban chickscape of “Sex and the City” --- Cassandra Edwards would have a posse of smart-talking, Chardonnay-swilling pals to help her through this overwrought moment. They'd gab for hours about her choice of a bridesmaid's dress. They'd speculate about the groom's endowment. And they'd tease Cassandra for her ambivalence about catching the bouquet.
Cassandra at the Wedding is a stunning rebuke to that shallow-as-glass sensibility.
It's a smart, stylish, disturbing novel --- a book much too good to languish at an Amazon.com ranking of 1,000,000.
But then, Dorothy Baker is not exactly a household name. Young Man with a Horn --- her fictionalized account of the doomed jazz great Bix Beiderbecke --- was published in 1938. It's pure pleasure; I've read it a dozen times since discovering it as a kid. I thought it was her only novel until a Butler reader tipped me to “Cassandra at the Wedding”, the last of what turn out to be Baker's three novels.
Like “Young Man with a Horn,” this novel begins effortlessly: "I told them I could be free by the twenty-first, and that I'd come home the twenty-second.” That makes Cassandra seem chatty and friendly. Well, it doesn't take long for her bitchy side to surface. Example: Her twin's beloved is John Thomas Finch. Cassandra's comment: “Where'd she meet him --- Birdland?”
Soon we see that Cassandra is an inventory of neurosis. She's writing a thesis about French writers rather than be a writer --- her mother wrote plays and novels --- but she's stumbling even in her academic writing. Her biggest issue, naturally, is her twin. She's just obsessed. And with every detail of their lives. She was, she notes, born “two ounces heavier and eleven minutes older than the one named Judith.”
As children, they lived on the Northern California ranch where Judith will be married. They came right home after school: “We didn't need people.” Now, even though separated, they're so in tune with one another that they have both bought the same dress to wear at the wedding.
To Cassandra, that's one more metaphor for all that's wrong about Judith's wedding --- one more reason she must stop it. She explains this to us at great length, and some readers, wading through these pages, will think this book is just talk talk talk. It's not. Baker is doing something far more subtle and accomplished --- she's presenting a close account of an unraveling personality.
On the wedding day, there's an event. No spoilers here, but it's not the wedding, and it is a shocker. And it leads to more. And, in the end, you feel you've come to know some people at least as complex as you are and as twisted as some people you know.
Oh, there's a twitch I've failed to mention. “With men I feel like a bird in the clutch of a cat, terrified, caught in a nightmare of confinement, wanting nothing but to get free and take a shower,” Cassandra tells us. Translation: She's gay. Context: “Cassandra” was published in 1962, so at no point is this ever made explicit. But you can read the entire book without being aware of her sexuality. For me, that's the mark of damn good writing.
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To read more about “Young Man with a Horn on HeadButler.com and buy it from Amazon.com, click here.