Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

published 1960

[Excerpt from book]

[The sisters are talking]

‘Where’d you get that bathing suit?’

‘It’s a swimsuit. It said so on the sales slip.’

‘Papa doesn’t like us to use infinitives where participles are called for, and you know it, fry-pan.’

‘I’m not arguing. I just told you what it said on the slip.’

‘All right, but don’t tell papa.’

We went dragging through this kind of old-home talk just to get the feel of it, but my eye was on that suit, that swimming costume from the islands, and I was feeling more and more over-dressed and landed, like somebody’s mother’s older sister at a beach party.

But not irrevocably. I was unbuttoning my blouse and remembering that I had a bikini of my own, somewhere. Probably in a bottom drawer in Berkeley, because I couldn’t remember packing it.

‘Is that my suit?’ I said.

Your suit? Does it look like it?’

‘Yes it does a little. Remember my black-and-brown bikini with the drawstring sides?’

‘Look,’ Jude said ‘this is brown and blue and these aren’t drawstrings. And besides that I bought it last week.’


‘Saks. And Conchita was using your black-and-brown thing for a dustcloth three years ago.’

‘She was? Well then you’ll have to pardon me. This can’t be mine.’

comments: I must have been missing out on Cassandra at the Wedding for many years – it’s exactly the kind of book I love, and it isn’t totally unknown, but no-one has ever recommended it to me. Luckily for me the Guest Blogger, Colm Redmond, gave it to me – though even he hasn’t read it, he heard a radio play.

Cassandra is heading from San Francisco – she’s a student at Berkeley – to the family ranch elsewhere in California, where her twin sister is about to get married.

We get a quick lowdown on the family – mother, a famous writer, is dead, Father is an academic, Granny lives at the ranch too. Cassandra and Judith are identical and very very close, and have been separated for the first time in the past year. Judith went off to New York and found herself a fiancé. Cassandra is not at all sure what she thinks about that.

One of the pleasures of the book was that I had no idea in which direction it was going to go – I was expecting something more like Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, or Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. It is nothing like them, but that is more or less all I want to say about the plot and structure. It is a proper novel, and does sometimes go in unexpected directions. It is somehow sun-filled but at the same time close and intimate.

There are not many characters or encounters outside the basic family (although there is a magical and hilarious moment when someone very unexpected turns up). The ranch and its swimming pool become very real, I had a clear picture of them. The sisterly relationship, and the extra closeness of twins, is done very well and I imagine would resonate with those who have such a relationship – I don’t have a sister, but that conversation above sounds just right. There are almost points where the twins change places or are mistaken for each other, but it doesn’t quite happen – although they do sort of end up with the same dress, despite their mother’s resistance to dressing them alike in childhood.

The book is very funny and very clever – the symbolism and structure are superbly well-done, while the details of life are fascinating. It feels quite modern in some ways, particularly in the interest in mental health. If I had to make a comparison, I would say it was like a cross between Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

It is a marvellous book.

There have been many weddings (and wedding dresses) on the blog – a subject of enduring interest round here. See labels below.

In 2017 I looked at Grant Ginder’s The People we Hate at the Wedding – a perfectly fine book, though sadly nothing was ever going to live up to that wonderful title.

There are some very strange twins in Violet Trefusis' Echo, and some excellent twin pictures to accompany the blogpost. 

Fashion photos – they are not actually twins, but they looked it to me… from Kristine.

Round the pool also 1960, looking less like twins.. also Kristine.

Swimsuit and big hat - also Kristine. 

Black and white, women in white.. same source.


  1. I can sense the wit in this one, Moira, just from the bits you shared. The writing style is catchy, too. And it's nice to learn of a book about family that's not either a bleak story of a dysfunctional family, or an unrealistic description, if that makes sense. And I know those bathing suit conversations appealed to you!

    1. Yes - everything I like in a book Margot! It really was an unusual and satisfying read.

  2. I had never heard of this author or this book, but the locations interested me so I looked into it. The author's first book was Young Man With a Horn published in 1938 and was made into a film with Burt Lancaster. Wikipedia indicated that the author had twin daughters. All very interesting.

    1. Sorry, Kirk Douglas, not Burt Lancaster. I have Burt on the brain, and they were in Seven Days in May together (a favorite film) and I keep confusing them.

    2. I saw Young Man... a long time ago and only remember it vaguely. That is a very interesting detail about the twin daughters.

  3. "Papa doesn’t like us to use infinitives where participles are called for, and you know it, fry-pan"

    Absolutely! Oh,Papa is my soulmate.

    1. Papa is a pedant. Swimsuits rule. Also golf trousers and walk shorts.

    2. I can be as pedantic as anyone, but that wouldn't bother me, I didn't even know there was an issue. Always willing to consider a new rule, but can't make up my mind about this one.

  4. Wow, that book did not go where I was expecting it to. I should have paid more attention to your comment about its mixing Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion, which is quite accurate. The excerpt here, and the opening pages available on Amazon, reminded me of Eve Babitz (and to be fair, the Basque restaurant in Bakersfield, the drinking and the drugs, the Bay Area as the place to be serious, all feature in both, as does that strong and very recognizable sense of place, which I greatly appreciated), but this is much, much darker. I went from sympathy for Cassandra to seeing her as a monster and hoping Judith would be able to live up to her name and excise this threat to her happiness. Sometimes the greatest creative act is to construct a normal life to replace the mess you come from. I'm glad I didn't read this when I was in grad school; it would not have been good for me when I was the age of the sisters.

    1. That's a very interesting point, now I'm thinking hard how I would have reacted to this book when I was Cassandra's age. The plot really does go in unexpected directions, and tells us that the modern age does NOT have a monopoly on surprises from the narrator.
      Eve Babitz is a name I have heard but not familiar with her work - recommendations?

    2. Slow Days, Fast Company: memoir? short stories? about life in and around LA in the 70s, with reminiscences of growing up there earlier. My copy is packed away, or I'd quote you some bits about Mary and her clothes and perfect lilac eyeshadow.

    3. Oh thanks! I will go and look it up. And now have bought it...

  5. Probably one I can pass on thanks


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