Dorothy Baker is a master of painting emotional landscape. After reading her book, I looked back at the cover (this particular nyrb edition), a small part of David Park’s painting, Figure with Fence, and pondered on why it was chosen for this novel. The girl’s face, melancholic and contemplating, against the simple fence with a few flowers on the other side, comes alive in a warm palette of colours, exuding humanity and compassion. Baker’s writing is much alike the cover painting: tender, forgiving and profound. A few themes stand out in this novel: identity, loneliness, and love and family.
Cassandra and Judith, throughout the novel, contemplate their resemblance and connection to one another, to define their own identity. Being identical twins, they form a close sisterhood and also become each other’s alter ego, or a mirror of reflection, to help them recognize their own uniqueness. During the first night that Cassandra returned home, Judith makes an observation about her sister’s voice through the telephone earlier that day, “it was the voice and the way it went. Like a play-back of something I’d have made up and recorded.” As they are aware of their identical physical features, we get the hint that they are trying to grow into separate identities, as Cassandra insists, “to have us become individuals, each of us in our own right, and not to be confused in ourselves, nor confusing to other people.” But hidden within the chaotic thoughts that clutter Cassandra’s mind, between her worries of her thesis, her soon-to-be brother-in-law, her granny and father, she also struggles with her identity separate from her mother, who was also a writer, and whose funeral last year was clearly still present on Cassandra’s mind. Perhaps her avoiding addressing Judith’s fiance by his real name and instead using a sarcastic nickname, and her fussing over her dress that looks very similar to her sister’s, are acts of defiance and escape. She hides away from reality, forming layers of complications in her mind about every small detail, and struggles to form an inner voice that is separate from those surrounding her. Cassandra loses her identity somewhere between being a sister and daughter and granddaughter, and therefore is lost amidst her complicated feelings.
Part of the reason Cassandra is closed off from the world and tragically collapses into turmoil is her loneliness. Her narration doesn’t really mention friends or relationships with other people that aren’t her family or therapist. She confesses to her sister, “You can’t know how it was – being in our apartment by myself after you went to New York. […] every time I think how lonely I was in that apartment.” But at this point the readers also realize that her loneliness isn’t exclusive, when Judith also confides, “I was pretty lonely there myself. […] waiting around for you to come home.” The sisters find themselves in a tragic emotional riff, unaware of each other’s distances. This distance keeps Cassandra from celebrating Judith’s marriage, and makes Judith feel helpless and locked out of Cassandra’s thoughts. It’s a tragic because although they love and understand each other, fail help each the other out of loneliness.
Ultimately, “Cassandra at the Wedding” is about family and love. The Edwards family is caring and lively, with everyone looking out for one another and loving without condition. The sister’s love is the spotlight of the story, and the complicated weaving narrations of the two describes how sometimes love isn’t enough. Judith contemplates, “There is only one thing that would help Cassie […] that would be for me to go to pieces in the same way she has.” In some kind of twisted logic of love, she knows Cassandra would save her if she was the broken one instead. Judith has trust and faith in Cassandra that she herself lacks – perhaps that is the best quality a family can have, faith in one another even when the person doesn’t believe in herself. And Cassandra, returns her sister’s love in her very own way, by offering to give her sister and her husband the piano they shared, “keep your half, and I’ll give my half to Jack. That way it’s all in the family. Different family, but all in it.” This gesture shines some hope on our protagonist – perhaps she had stepped out of the isolation that consumed her, to reach out to her sister. Perhaps she had overcome the crisis, “But I do know how I want to be, and how I believe I can be.” Baker didn’t give us a conclusive ending, but her writing, gentle and kind, gives me hope that with her family’s love, Cassandra would eventually find her identity and get a second chance at life.