It’s a June afternoon in 1963 when Cassandra at the Wedding gets on the road in a Riley convertible. The sun is setting on California’s Central Valley. Cassandra Edwards is on her way home to a citrus ranch I imagine to be near Terra Bella where the novel’s author, Dorothy Baker, lived and died shortly after the novel’s completion. Cassandra stops at a bar for a lemon squash, tugs off her driving gloves to use an emergency phone, sluices off dust with an irrigation pipe, and then arrives home in the moth-laced dark. There are glowing lights on the brass wet bar, polished terra-cotta tiles, and herringbone wood ceilings.
This isn’t actually how the book starts. It begins with Cassandra, alone in her Berkeley apartment, wishing she wasn’t. She considers suicide. She considers the futility of academia: “It was such busywork, this whole thing of writing a thesis so that I could become a teacher instead of a writer … I’d really have preferred it the other way around.” She considers her “unsuitable” and unsatisfactory love life. There is the strong suggestion that, while Cassandra feels it’s okay to have flings with other young women at the university, anyone else willing to do so is an inferior sort of person. Cassandra doesn’t want to be part of any club big enough to be a club. She’s got her standards to keep her warm. But, it wasn’t always so lonely for Cassandra. Her twin was always with her. Even apart, they were together. Until they weren’t.
The twins’ paths diverged when Judith went off to Juilliard in New York to see about music and perhaps about individualism. While her sister was falling apart in Berkeley, Judith fell for, and got engaged to, a nice young man, an almost cardboard young doctor. The sisters reconvene at the family ranch for the first time in nine months for the wedding—or in Cassandra’s case, to prevent the wedding.
It isn’t something as simple as taste or money that sets people apart for Cassandra. I felt personally familiar with all her slippery superiority, and I’m not alone. The book has something of a cult following. For Cassandra, a damn fine way to see who’s who is to look at their belongings, every one of which is a “tell.” Cassandra has a Bösendorfer piano. She has a Riley, a beloved make of British racing and touring car, which should tell you everything else you need to know. Deborah Eisenberg, in her illuminating afterword to the NYRB Classics edition, points out that as opposed to all the critique of the American dream in contemporary sixties literature, “the Edwards’ materialism, in contrast—it isn’t one bit empty—the family derives substantial pleasure from their fresh orange juice, the views from their house …”
I spend no small part of my life not only thinking about material objects, but attempting to justify my desires. How easy it is to say “in late capitalism” before one says “I think about those shoes six times a day and I fully believe they will complete my life.” I tried no small number of tactics and therapies—grad school among them—before I hit on a truth that about myself and things. It’s a lifelong love affair. This is also a writer’s problem. We’re looking out for character notes, always. We don’t know much about Vera Mercer, Cassandra’s analyst. She has a “rather handsome piece of luggage—black canvas bound in tan leather, not particularly large but not exactly overnight either.” Mercer is suddenly vivid. She travels alone. Her confidence and tendency to slightly overcommit are her calling cards. A superior person, for Cassandra and for me, is a person who tells an interesting story before you’ve heard them say a word. I am constantly trying to pass my own self on the street. What character am I performing? How complete is the portrait? How clear is the impression?
Cassandra unpacks her weekend bag in her childhood bedroom and an entire self-portrait tumbles out. There are the sneakers, the blue jeans, and the sweater shirts, worn before it was common. It isn’t the cost or the formality that draws Cassandra’s pleasure—it is that she sees personhood in her possessions. Those shoes are just beginning to develop “style.” I remember the dark winter in college when I briefly considered giving up all my exercise attire because I believed that the person I wanted to be didn’t run for health. In fact, maybe that person didn’t have health at all.
It is true that joy can come from having a particular cocktail in a particular apartment or joy can come from finding that your partner’s borrowed sweatshirt perfectly fits into your own wardrobe. But this is not the only way to find joy. Seeking joy in perfection—and it turns out this is obvious—is awfully hard. Chasing the complete portrait, the faultless image, is near impossible. Contradictions make people interesting, and socks aren’t just signals, they also keep your feet warm. There is a section in Cassandra titled “Judith Speaks.” Judith is doing the talking partly because Cassandra has intentionally overdosed on prescription pills, but Judith’s clarity goes beyond mere consciousness. Judith understands something that Cassandra doesn’t. In one beautiful moment Judith, readying for the altar, considers lipstick and decides against it. All her bravery is in that gesture. Hemingway, whom Baker conspicuously admired, described his first wife, Hadley, as taking every decision as a gift. You can only do that if you aren’t always worried about making the wrong one. Reading Cassandra at the Wedding now, I still don’t identify with Judith, but I finally realize that she is right.
“My old high school tank suit … It still had the Putnam swimming team insignia on the right leg, and it was quite a beautiful color, sort of a blue-grey-green that it has arrived at through season of chlorinated water and full-strength sun”
Cassandra loves her high school bathing suit. She is painfully in need of a bit of solid past. In classic form, Cassandra’s little token has Hemingway-esque aesthetic merit. The suit is good because it is worn and it still holds. I look for this “blue-grey-green” everywhere.
“It was still hot, but the edge was off, and I sat quiet for a minute while the dust settled. I stripped off my gloves, pulled the belt apart, found coins for the phone …”
As a tribute to her mother, or her grandmother, or her car, Cassandra wears driving gloves when she commands the Riley. I love how idiosyncratic this seems, it’s a telling portrait of the individualism she’s searching for.
Blouse and skirt
“I hadn’t brought much, three skirts, three or four blouses.”
It was difficult to imagine Cassandra in a skirt and blouse until my research unearthed staggering photographs of Joan Didion as a Berkeley student at around the same time. I can imagine both daughters of the Central Valley perfectly attired in the acceptable uniform of the time, knowing it is armor against exactly nothing.
According to Cassandra, “Nobody ever gets married in anything decent. You wear something you wouldn’t be caught dead in anyplace but your own wedding.” For Cassandra, a bride cannot have fine, restrained taste in wedding dresses because to wed is itself grossly conventional. So when Cassandra and her sister unknowingly pick out the same dress to wear for the wedding, Cassandra is devastated. Cassandra cannot stand the idea that Judith can have a conventional marriage and something of simple restraint. It violates her character notes, it interrupts the sealing in and soldering of her character.
Like her worn-out bathing suit, Cassandra loves her worn-out sweatshirts and sneakers because they attest to the fact of her own existence, like tick marks up a doorjamb tracking a child’s growth. She also likes, I presume, their affront to the conventions of tidiness prized by those who lack her towering “style” and creativity.
“ ‘They were falling apart three years ago. They haven’t even got tongues. Just look at them.’ I looked. ‘To my eye,’ I said. ‘They’ve got real style, or at least they’re beginning to get it.’ ”
Julia Berick is a writer who lives in New York. She works at The Paris Review.
Jenny Kroik is an illustrator and painter. She has created covers for The New Yorker, and made illustrations for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Penguin Random House, and more.