I left Cassandra at the Wedding tearily hopeful and good and chastised.
I say left, but mean emerged from, because Cassandra is as much a spell or an ocean as it is a book, with an inexorable pull and terrible consequences. And while I’m comfortable calling a book an ocean–because of course you’ve all been swept out by wordy tides and tumbled bloody under crashing emotions that aren’t even your own–I’ll draw a quick backbone through Cassandra the book: It is a character study from the inside; it is a meditation on how precious and precarious our worthless lives are; it is a love story between Cassandra Edwards and her twin sister Judith, between Cassie and water, between Cassie and her mother and dying and writing.
Cassandra is narrated by Cassie, a Berkeley PhD candidate who travels home for Judith’s wedding; except when Cassie is unconscious after overdosing on sleeping pills and Judith takes over the story. The twin narrations show the sisters’ overlapping identities: they look the same and use the same vocabulary and each own half of the Bosendorfer piano that they bought together; only Cassie is wild and brilliant and foundering, and Judith, less completely precocious (Cassie notes that while she was first in their high school class, Judith was only fourth), seeks stability even as she understands and admires Cassie. Baker beautifully and heartwrenchingly contrasts the twins’ co-dependence when together, caught in Cassie’s powerful and largely drunken orbit, with their reality of inhabiting two discrete bodies with minds that are more and less than, but certainly not equal to, two halves that could fit together as a whole.
There are countless labyrinths, perhaps, that worthy books construct, but I never get good and trapped unless the maze is inside a person. I can escape clutching plot twists and cartwheeling word plays and switchbacking footnotes, and even the seduction of magical tremors with aplomb; but throw me inside an idiot like Cassie, or that dummy Horacio from Hopscotch, and I can’t separate myself because, god damn! the world is so minutely pleasing, and still its pain and uselessness and insanity stalks me. And when Cassie notes wryly that the last thing she remembers before passing out is speaking to a poster of a clown in her bedroom, “saying something quite brilliant, like ‘Goodbye, you clown’”–that’s deathly. Logic and humor carry her offstage, and I’m stuck inside her even as she’s gone.
Cassandra is also a tragicomedy, because it tries to end in a death and instead finds a marriage, and because Cassie emerges from her doomed love and doomed suicide attempt as lonely and self-centered and stupid about living as ever. She starts and ends contemplating the Golden Gate Bridge from her perch in Berkeley; and though she doesn’t feel like jumping the latter time, drunk people who live alone are prone to dying suddenly. But still–and again, Cassandra punches me hard and leaves me windless–Cassie is so simply joyful and in-the-world when we leave her, watching light playing as her sock falls into the San Francisco Bay less than twenty-four hours after a near-successful suicide attempt. She’s perfectly in love with the world despite only finding this justification to live rather than die: “One thing about being alive is that you can swim.”