Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker


This book was JacquiWine's choice for "a book that deserves a wider audience"  at Reading Matters and I wholeheartedly agree. Dorothy Baker wrote Young Man with a Horn (made into a movie with Kirk Douglas) in 1938. This 1962 book about twin sisters was based on her own daughters, according to her husband.

The novel is narrated first by Cassandra as she drives to the family ranch from graduate school in Berkeley to attend her sister's wedding or rather to try to stop the wedding. Cassandra is a complex character, a gay woman from a family that was insular and quite learned.  As she prepares to leave the apartment she and Judith had shared until 9 months ago, she looked out from the deck at the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bridge looked good again. The sun was on it, and it took on something of the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless and where you are listening to a lecture, as I so often do, that is in no way brilliant. But lectures can't all be brilliant, of course; they can be sat through and listened to for what there is in them, and if the exit sign is dazzling it can still be ignored. Besides, my guide assures me that I am not, at heart, a jumper; it's not my sort of thing. I'm given to conjecture only, and to restlessness, and I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge and that the strong possibility was I'd go home, attend my sister's wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace when it became a question of speaking now or forever holding it.

So you get the flavor of the mesmerizing if self-destructive Cassandra in the quote above. After her arrival at the ranch she throws monkey-wrenches in the works in the form of drunken weeping and talking. The next morning she believes she has convinced Judith that they must always live together and that marriage is out of the question. When Judith disabuses her of this, well, it does not go down well. At this point the straightforward sensible Judith takes over the narrative which is mesmerizing in its own way, because, after all, Cassandra is still at the center of the story. 

Along with the stunning writing there is the engaging story and appealing characters. I was struck too by the casual luxury of the life of the family; the delicious and lovely comforts include a Bösendorfer piano, a pool at the ranch, French champagne from the good years. For a book written in 1962 it did not seem dated to me; the issues, the language, and the world view could have been from a current novel. The NYRB did a great job in reprinting this fine book.

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding, New York Review of Books version 2004, originally 1962, 241 pages. Available at the public library and from Amazon. 

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