Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: Cassandra at the Wedding

Cassandra at the Wedding
Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker, is about identical twin sisters Cassandra and Judith Edwards.  The two were inseparable growing up, insulated from the rest of the world without any other friends, and planned to move to Paris together after college, until Judith abruptly told Cassandra that before they moved together to Europe, Jude was going to spend a year on her own in New York.

Jude went to New York, met a man and fell in love.  Nine months later, Cassandra is on her way home to "the ranch" to serve as the sole bridesmaid at an intimate wedding that she does not want to see happen.  She, in fact, wants very much to stop it from happening.

Cassandra at the Wedding takes place over only one weekend, full of family drama, the pressures of being two very different people who look exactly alike, prescription drugs, marriage and much else.

There are many stories written about dysfunctional upper-class families.  This family of a wealthy grandmother, two intelligent professor parents (the mother has already passed away) and two twin girls.  They do not dislike their wealth; they use it and thoroughly enjoy it.  They don't even think about how much things cost.  They think instead about how difficult their lives are.

It's hard for me to read books like Cassandra at the Wedding without feeling that the main characters are completely spoiled and somewhat delusional.  This was no different.  We are in Cassandra's head for two-thirds of the book, and it is one messed-up head.  She is a charming and amusing narrator, but one who is absolutely wrapped up in herself.  Cassandra is witty and funny and sharp, but beneath it all there runs the string of delusion and self-mockery.  She believes she is strong, and a leader, but really she is fragile and cannot survive on her own without Judith as her alter ego.  Cassandra doesn't want Judith to get married because then Cassandra will stop existing.  "Because an integer can't exist without integrity.  That's what we are, together- a whole being, a fabric, a complex- we're completed.  And our integrity- well, we need it, and we've got it.  We have to fight for it, but we know that."

Judith, on the other hand, is quiet and kind and patient.  She was the shadow to Cassandra's spotlight her whole life and it is only when she went to New York that she realized her existence was not inextricably tied to her sister's.  That they shared very little in common, really.  That she didn't need Cassandra, but that Cassandra needs her, desperately.  Judith's narrative section is weary, tired of the drama and just wanting to move on with her life, be happy.  Judith has learned how to care about and love other people; Cassandra has not.

And so the story goes, with one pressuring the other, and one trying very hard to stand on her own two feet.  It is a dark comedy, full of classical references, wordplay and pain.  The book put me in mind of the play August:  Osage County in the way it really brings the many complexities of family relationships to light.  This was not a long story- just 225 pages- but it is a difficult one to read.  There are touches of brilliance and a truly fierce love, but the story also shows just how cloying and unhealthy a very inward and isolated love can be, turning into a dangerous level of dependence.

16 comments:

  1. The cover alone makes me want to read it. Even more so when you described it as "a dark comedy, full of classical references, wordplay and pain." And when you say there are touches of brilliance in it. Thanks.

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  2. The relationship of the twins sounds a bit like the one in Her Fearful Symmetry.

    I love your summary word of cloying - it sounds exactly on point!

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  3. After reading your review, this sounds like a book I might skip. Unlike Claire, I find the cover atrocious. I dislike the colors, and it makes me feel tired, like after the end of a day at the museum. That combined with spoiled main characters, and I think this book would exhaust me, despite the touches of brilliance.

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  4. I hope not too clingy, I do not like books with sad endings :/

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  5. Claire- Yes, I like the cover, too! I love ALL the NYRB covers, though.

    Rhapsody- I haven't read Her Fearful Symmetry, but I know a lot of people said that the relationship there was unhealthy, so that makes sense!

    Brizmus- It's definitely not a book that would be for everyone's enjoyment. It's more one that you might read in a feminist history class, I think!

    Blodeuedd- I won't give away the ending, but sometimes sad endings can be SO AMAZING!

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  6. Brilliant review! I read this a while ago and thought it was intense and wonderful at exploring the obsessive love and jealousy between sisters. I also loved the way the suffocating heat of the California (was it set in California?) sun gave the whole atmosphere of the novel a really close, stifling feel. Interesting cover - I have a Virago press edition.

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  7. Never heard of this book. But it sounds like a great read. Thanks for mentioning it.

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  8. Having identical twin girls myself, I find this story rather scary. I do worry that my girls will become to dependent on each other as they get older and I am hoping that they will learn to go their seperate ways. Luckily my two are not spoilt like these, but there is always the aspect of one living in the others shadow.

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  9. I think I'd enjoy this a lot. Cassandra sounds like she'd drive me crazy (unacknowledged social-economic privilege always does), but at the same time, it sounds like that's kind of the point. And plus I want to "meet" Judith. And also I love dark humour :P

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  10. I love books exploring the nature of a bond between sisters -- it's something fierce. And twins, no less! This definitely sounds like something I would enjoy and am surprised I've never heard of it. Thanks for bringing it to our attention with a great review! :)

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  11. Bookssnob- You're so right! It is set in stifling California heat and it DOES have a huge impact on the atmosphere. I didn't catch that :-)

    Andreea- I pretty much think anything NYRB puts out is good to read, whether for enjoyment or to make you think a LOT.

    Vivienne- Yes, it's interesting how much there is about twins! Even the book I am reading now has male twins in it and THEY are a little possessive of each other, too.

    Nymeth- Yes, unacknowledged socio-economic privilege abounds here! It was an infuriating but really illuminating read.

    Meg- I had never heard of it, either! I love that books like this, that have been kind of lost in the shuffle, are now coming out more.

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  12. There are aspects of this story that really appeal to me, and other aspects that warn me away. I do think that I would enjoy the complex push and pull of the girls emotional connection, but the bits inside Cassandra's head sound like they might make for frustrating reading. I am on the fence about this book, but I do think you've given it a very balanced and fair review. Though it sounds a bit problematic, it also sounds interesting.

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  13. Having just finished White is for Witching, I've been thinking about twins in literature, and how a lot of books like to explore the idea of twins as doppelgangers to each other and even, sometimes, parasites. I never know if it's just an idea these authors enjoy playing with, or if people are really genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of twinship.

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  14. This sounds intriguing. Twins always make for some interesting plots in novels. Great review!

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  15. Ever since I read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, I've been "scared" to read stories revolving around twins. I've always had romantic and carefree illusions of the relationship between twins, that it was quite a shock to wake up and realize that it really is not so. This one also appears to deal with twin relations, and hesitant though I am, I am pretty intrigued by this plot too! Nice review, I may be checking this one out.

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  16. I feel the same discomfort with "serious" books featuring upper-crust people with no other sort for contrast. If I think it's a good book, I feel embarrassed for the author. If I don't think it's a good book, I'm disgusted with them.

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