One hope I have this year is to read more women writers than last, so when I was recommended Dorothy Baker’s final novel, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Jacqui over at Jacquiwine, it seemed the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with a writer I had never encountered before. It’s perhaps not entirely unsurprising that Baker was a new name to me – her four novels appeared sporadically between 1938 and 1962, with the first and last rescued from oblivion by the New York Review of Books in 2012.
Her second novel, Trio, was adapted by Baker and her husband into a play shortly after publication, a fact I found interesting considering Cassandra at the Wedding’s dramatic structure. Although split into three parts (the first and third from Cassandra’s point of view, the second from that of her sister Judith), part one’s division into three chapters gives the novel the feel of a five-act play. This is intensified by its largely single setting, and the way in which Cassandra’s arrival triggers the introduction of the other characters (her father, grandmother, and sister) with further characters appearing in later acts (Judith’s fiancé, Jack, and Cassandra’s therapist, Vera). Like many American plays of the 40s and 50s, it places a family together to reveal the tensions and secrets beneath the surface. Although the wedding is the ostensible reason for Cassandra’s arrival, it is Cassandra, and her relationship with her twin sister Judith, that is the focus of the play – with Baker arranging for the marriage itself to be downplayed, almost an aside.
Cassandra arrives not for the wedding but in the belief that Judith – “the dazed, hood-winked, marriage-prone bride” – will not go through with it. Everything originates in their close relationship growing up, a relationship that Cassandra does not expect to end. Baker uses as piano they bought together to symbolise their symbiotic ties:
“It was unmistakably a Boesendorfer, meant for us, and we became its co-owners right away. Without conferring. Without the slightest need to.”
For Cassandra, their permanent separation would be akin to sawing the piano in half. It is on the day that the piano is delivered that Cassandra remembers Judith saying, “We ought to live this way, don’t you think?”
“It was as if I’d been waiting all my life to hear her say it, and I said yes, oh yes, how could we imagine it ever being any other way?”
Baker cleverly presents the novel’s first half from Casandra’s point of view, giving the reader an initial sympathy that is difficult to shake entirely even as we slowly discover that she is both damaged and manipulative. After spending the first night drinking and talking to her sister (Jack is off-stage at the moment, his collection from the airport a task both Judith and Cassandra plan to undertake), she convinces herself that Judith shares her feelings:
“…maybe after we’re together again someplace, wherever we decide to be – Tenerife, possibly, for a while – I might go on to something new, try a balanced diet, get a tan, swim a lot, run up and down the beach, write from six until ten in the morning…”
The list echoes everything she is not doing – she hardly eats, has becomes sunburned on the journey (a nice touch, the burning representing her frenzied mental state), finds she can no longer hold her breath for long (the sisters were swimmers), and refuses to write, anxious she could not live up to her dead mother who was a writer. Everything is put off until she has Judith, and it is little wonder that she attempts suicide when she discovers Judith intends to go ahead with the wedding. (Death has been in the air since the start: when she says, “The bridge looks good again”, in the first few pages she is not referring to the view).
Only with Cassandra incapacitated do we finally get to hear Judith’s voice, and Jack, bringer of common sense, finally makes an appearance. In comparison with the other characters Jack seems dull and dependable, providing a direct contrast to Cassandra. The emergency phone booth Cassandra used to call ahead when she was on her way home is dismissed by Jack: “This isn’t an emergency.” When Judith comments, with reference to Cassandra, “All I wanted to do was die,” he is angered by the hyperbole:
“Quit talking about wanting to die…Dying is a big thing.”
It is, of course, Jack who saves Cassandra, rather than her therapist, Vera, whose desperate drive to her side echoes Cassandra’s own sudden decision to head home a day early to be with Judith. We finish again with the bridge, in a scene which could be regarded as optimistic or fore-shadowing something much darker – perhaps a prophecy we do not understand.
Cassandra at the Wedding is a wonderful book – thanks again to Jacqui for suggesting it.