If you are not familiar with the Emily Books Book Club, or simply have that condition where you struggle to form short-term memories, you may click here. Maybe you already did! This month, Emily and I read and discussed Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding (discount code, as always, at the bottom of the post) and had a tiny fight about Sylvia Plath.
Emily – Oh, hello there!
Nicole – HI EMILY, this is the best book.
Emily – I’m so glad you loved it. This, bizarrely, is one I had to be talked into by Ruth!
Nicole – What is wrong with you? jk SORT OF
Emily – A lot? I don’t remember, actually, why I wasn’t crazy about it the first time I read it. Maybe it was that it had “wedding” in the title? I honestly don’t know. On second reading, I loved it. And loved Cassandra.
Nicole – I loved her too. Some reviews call her “evil,” which I cannot abide.
Emily – Well, those people are homophobes!
Nicole – YES. Also, I pictured her looking like a young Lionel Shriver. That’s interesting, too, how on one hand you worry that having a clearly deranged gay protagonist in the 60s is cliché, and then it turns out to be a very very sympathetic portrait. AND that Vera flies out to see her, and that she is not supposed to find love with a man.
Emily – What’s your favorite part?
Nicole – I think when she shows them her dress (the dress she selects for herself turns out to be the exact same one that her sister (THE BRIDE) has chosen as a wedding dress) and they just…go silent. And placing the call from the emergency phone, and when she says that some people cannot imagine being in love with a black velvet curtain (DEATH).
Emily – That part reminded me a lot of The Bell Jar, which actually came out later than this book!
Nicole – INTERESTING. This is so much better than the stupid bell jar.
Emily – Actually a lot of Cassandra’s interiority struck me as Esther Greenwood-y, but maybe that’s just how people talked (in their minds) back then? Omg you did not just diss The Bell Jar.
Nicole – I DID
Emily – The Bell Jar’s great, Nicole
Nicole – No, I only read it last year, it was too late for me.
Emily – huh! I reread it recently and liked it a lot more than I did as a teen
Nicole – I think I just do not like Plath, and brought in my own baggage, because I think Ted Hughes is a vastly superior poet.
Emily – Omg stop.
Nicole – Although a bag of dicks, I’m sure.
Emily – And a serial killer? Ha um we don’t have to have that conversation right now
Nicole – Let’s table it for another time, though. But, Cassandra! Cassandra is the best.
Emily – Sorry yes. Cassandra!
Nicole – SHE IS THE BEST. The refusal to ever once say “twin” in this book. Her horror of being called twins.
Emily – Okay I’m so sorry to do this but I’m going to bring Sylvia back into this
Nicole – I’ll allow it, but you better connect it up.
Emily – You know the idea of having a “good” and “bad” version of yourself was also something SP wrote about a lot
Nicole – Yes, fair.
Emily – and Cassandra and … I’m sorry, I don’t even remember her name because she’s so vanilla are a very clear take on that theme
Nicole – Judith. NOTE that she occasionally calls her Jude
Emily – There’s something fun and gothic about the idea of twins as halves of a divided whole
Nicole – LIKE THE LOST CAUSE SHE IS. Absolutely. The platonic flat fish
Emily – Poor Judith. “I’m going to get married and a big strong man will fix everything” good luck Judith
Nicole – He seems…nice. I like that he’s so flat. Like, we’re not supposed to hate him, but he’s about a thousandth as interesting as anyone else in the book.
Emily – Even Judith is interesting because, bland as she is, she’s bland in a real way
Nicole – As opposed to the doctor, whose name I have now forgotten in my turn: “What shall we hang on that wall? blah blah.” Agreed.
Emily – the way people choose to be bland when their families are TOO interesting.
Nicole – Bland, and also diving into being conventional. Having seen the end game of the alternative. OH, JANE. The dead mother.
Emily – the writer! Whose shadow Cassandra lives in.
Nicole – Yes.
Emily – I guess that is a detail from the author’s life. she also wrote a thesis about French women novelists, and luckily years later she also wrote this book
Nicole – And her husband says Cass and Jude are totally based on her and her daughters
Emily – That’s so creepy.
Nicole – Completely creepy.
Emily – “Our daughters, who are halves of a divided whole and somewhat in thwarted love” Um do you want to know what my favorite part is? it’s when Cassandra, recovering from her (spoiler but not really) suicide attempt, halfheartedly tries to seduce Vera, her therapist
Nicole – I love that too.
Emily – It’s so perfect.
Nicole – Vera Mercer, in general. So great.
Emily – She seems like a good therapist! Um, kind of.
Nicole – I love those glimpses of her whole life. no, as a character, I mean
Emily – I wish she hadn’t been such a good therapist and had just gotten into the bed, a bit.
Nicole – the idea that cass has this whole group of lovers and ex-lovers and friends and weirdos back in the city. The quality of the writing is so extraordinary. I could not believe I had literally never heard of an author who writes so plainly and well.
Emily – That whole opening sequence of the car ride through the California desert is virtuosic
Nicole – Stopping for the drink, the sunburn, the open car. Dousing her head at the pump. When she says “sluiced my ear”.
Emily – Everything I like: there isn’t a word too many or a word missing, you learn a ton about the character but you are never TOLD anything. Heather Havrilesky has a funny essay in the new Bookforum where she basically says “novels used to be allowed to be small and we were better off then.” this is a great physically small book. (It could probably be even shorter!) and its ilk has gone out of fashion, she’s right. people expect a big scope now
Nicole – This comes up, actually, in conversation about English novels a lot–That huge sweeping FREEDOM like books are very American and it’s tough for little slice-y English things (cass is very mary Wesley) to compete when awards happen. Because if you have one book that attempts to do THE STORY OF EXISTENCE, a weekend in the life of a woman is harder to have pop. But, then, I guess McEwan does this stuff, with Saturday, etc. But “Cassandra” is gloriously small. I didn’t even want more of it, I was so happy with the Faberge eggyness of it
Emily – I hope the tide will turn against the big books, even though I enjoy a lot of them, too
I would like to see a resurgence of these perfect jeweled Cassandra-style eggs
Nicole – I like and am grateful for the third of the book narrated by Judith. And I am still unsure of whether or not the final third is too upbeat, or correct
Emily – What would you have preferred?
Nicole – I obviously wanted Cassandra to live. I don’t know if I wanted her to totally pull it together and offer her the piano and help with the flowers.
Emily – ha!
Nicole – I don’t know if the answer needed to be her getting her shit together and Judith not changing at all. But, then, what to do?
Emily – Yeah, when you put yourself in the author’s shoes … I know this is not what you’re supposed to do in thinking about books btw
Nicole – Fuck ’em.
Emily – but I imagine her being really excited about the first half, getting through the Judith bit, and then the third part being like “welp, gotta end it somehow” In a more recent novel I think she would have flashed forward
Nicole – interesting!!
Emily – Cassandra’s living with Vera or someone similar, she’s a writer, Judith calls because she’s having some kind of baby or divorce or crisis, and she’s like “ok, on my way” and gets in her car, and there’s an air of menace like maybe this time she’ll crash
idk, that is one hacky take
at this point the one thing I know I’m really good at is thinking of a LOT of different TERRIBLE ways to end a book
Nicole – I love it. IT WAS ALL A DREAM. Judith is actually her border collie
Emily – endings, man. I sympathize. Just land the plane somehow, aim for as few fatalities as possible. lol, THEY WERE ALWAYS THE SAME PERSON, as in the Brian De Palma movie Sisters. sorry if I just spoiled Sisters for anyone
watch it anyway, it’s awesome
Nicole – On it. But, no, endings are difficult. And this did have resolution! What I find INTERESTING, here is that little part where Judith says that the only thing that would really “cure” Cass
is for Judith to disintegrate and need Cass to fix her, in which case Cass would get it together instantly. SO, since cass DOES get it together, is it because she thinks that Judith is in some way broken by marrying this clown?
(nice doctor) this is crazy speculation
Emily – I just feel like that gives the book a little bit too much making-sense credit. like, she gets her shit together temporarily because she has no other option in the confines of the book except to die
but I think she does give up on Judith and, wow, how to say this. like, there’s a little bit of that feeling sometimes when you are around someone who’s getting married who you’ve been very close to as a young single person even if you aren’t, like, their lesbian twin, that feeling of “well, she’s gone, moving on.”
(eek, that is dark)
Nicole – Ohh, true. NOPE, it’s a thing.
Emily – it’s why people cry at weddings.
Nicole – Her horror when she sees that Judith is in a low bikini, did you catch that? I thought Judith was pregnant at first, when I read that part. But it’s her horror that Judith is sensually present.
Emily – Cassandra! What a weirdo! She’s a really glamorous weirdo, though
Nicole – YES. With her brandy. And her eggs frothed into more brandy. And obviously looking totally gorgeous 24/7
Emily – I’m trying to think if there is any other female narrator pre-70s outside of pulpier things who is this complex, glamorous, fucked up and self-possessed. Anyway, that’s what the book is about for me. A heroine who is chic and interesting and slightly nuts and not at all about to be rescued by a man–sort of like the Elaine Dundy narrators except they all get rescued by men.
Nicole – She will be rescued by her own awesomeness, and rescued only in the sense she will just kick a shoe off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Emily – goodbye, shoe!
Nicole – OH, the initial mention of the bridge, where it’s just “the view was too appealing”
Emily – so emo (but yeah, that’s great writing) I like a good self-dramatizing narrator
Nicole – What music would Cass like? LET’S SPECULATE. LISA GERMANO
Emily – Yeah, obvi! She drove out there listening to The Con by Tegan and Sara. “I JUST WANT BACK INTO YOUR HEAD”
Nicole – She was not sure how she felt about the new album by T&S, though. Too mainstream, but she gets loaded and dances to “Closer” like everyone else
Emily – oh no. she didn’t really like it much at all
but sure, yeah, for dancing. or getting work done.
Nicole – IS she going to write, now? She might!
She might pick up the thing she left.
Emily – Of course. It might be…the book you just read!
Nicole – BA DAH DAHHHH
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Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.