This weekend I read the selection from Emily Books, a women’s bookstore that chooses one e-book a month. You can subscribe as a member and get the monthly selections, or buy the books one at a time.
This month the selection is Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, which is also available from NYRB. (I have an old Virago).
In this remarkable novel about twins, sexuality, and depression, the narrator, Cassandra, prepares to drive from Berkeley to the family ranch for her twin sister Judith’s wedding. Judith, a musician, will marry Jack, a medical student, in a private ceremony. Cassandra, their father, and grandmother, and perhaps a few of their grandmother’s friends will attend. Their mother died of cancer a few years ago. She was a writer, often absent.
Cassandra, a graduate student who has written 56 pages of her thesis, has felt suicidal. She stares out the window of her apartment at
…the bay with the prison islands and the unbelievable bridge across it. Unbelievable, but I’d got to believing in it from looking at it so often,and it had been looking quite attractive to me off and on through most of the winter. All but irresistible at times, but so was my analyst, and they canceled each other out more or less.
She decides to go home a day early, and on the five-hour drive stops at a bar for vodka and lemon squash. Cassandra drinks a lot. She never stops drinking. And when she looks in the mirror at the bar, she sees her sister’s face.
But I looked again in a moment or two, unable not to, and this time I let myself know who it was. It was the face of my sister Judith, not precisely staring, just looking at me very thoughtfully the way she always used to when she was getting ready to ask me to do something–hold the stop watch while she swam four hundred meters, taste the dressing and tell her what she left out, explain the anecdotes about the shepherd and the mermaid.
When she arrives, drunk and drinking, she tries to persuade Judith not to get married. She and Judith are both disturbed by the fact that they have bought the same dress (separately) for the wedding. Their grandmother thinks it is very funny, because their parents were adamant about their not dressing alike as children. But Cassandra is devastated.
They belong together, she tells Judith. They are special. They need to live together in their apartment in Berkeley with their Boesendorfer piano. Cassandra has had lesbian encounters with a few women, but they have meant little to her.
The next day, Cassandra wakes up and believes Judith has agreed to call off the wedding. She is mistaken.
Part of the novel is narrated by Judith. Her voice is likable, balanced, and sensible, and we are relieved that she can separate from Cassandra, and that we can have a break from Cassandra.
Baker’s style is witty, brilliant, and bold, and though this book is not quite a classic–it is a tiny bit overwritten–Baker’s portrait of Cassandra is both richly-colored and convincing. Cassandra’s voice is wry and often funny, but she is exasperating, sometimes even frightening, when it comes to her relationship with Judith. Cassandra’s detailed account of the events of her arrival and the following day is harrowing. She attempts suicide when Judith goes to the airport to meet Jack.
It is a fascinating novel, one you can easily read in a day. Baker’s husband, Harold Baker, a poet and critic, said that Cassandra and Judith were based on their own daughters, who were not twins, but were astonishingly alike as children.
Is this perhaps the best book about twins? I did enjoy Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, but it is not in this class.
GETTING READY FOR THE FUNERAL.
I will go to my mother’s funeral after all.
I am going in her honor. She went to a lot of funerals.
I will wear matching clothes. Usually my outfits are far from put-together. A t-shirt and jeans are my normal ensemble.
Today I shopped for funeral clothes. No, just clothes. Clothes a woman can wear out of the house. It took me five minutes to try on ten tops and buy the five most acceptable.
In the morning I will put on whatever seems most appropriate. Maybe “the matron shirt,” as I call it. With khakis. Except my ancient khakis no longer fit. I rummaged through the closet and fortunately found a pair of suitable slacks on the floor.
I will wear sunglasses if I can find a pair. I will literally not be able to see my family if the glasses are dark enough.
I will sit in the back of the church. No, I’ve been told this is unacceptable.
I will not know when to stand, sit, or genuflect.
I will not know the new (Protestant) end to the Lord’s Prayer that the Catholics added some years back. “Power and glory something something something?”
I will take some drugs. No, I don’t take drugs. Anyway, I have searched the cabinet. We have:
1. Vitamin B (always an exciting drug).
2. Advil (my favorite. I may chug a couple of those).
3. Alka-Seltzer Plus. (It’s a cold medicine.)
4. Ambien. (A sleeping pill.)
All right. Here’s what I’m saying to myself.